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The Age(s) of Dining Out

I want you to know I resist the idea of this article I’m writing.  It’s about stereotyping and generalizations.  And simplifications and categorizing and labeling.  And generations.

Nonetheless, here goes: another article pitting Millennials versus Boomers.  Even if you’re not in one of those categories, I think you should read on – because restaurant life as we know it going to more and more reflect younger people’s tastes.

Backing up and yet justifying my reluctance, The Center for Generational Kinetics says: “Generations exhibit similar characteristics – such as communication, shopping, and motivation preferences – because they experienced similar trends at approximately the same life stage and through similar channels (e.g., online, TV, mobile, etc.). Generation-shaping trends are most influential as people come of age, which means that members of a particular generation will develop and share similar values, beliefs, and expectations. It is important to remember that at an individual level, everyone is different.”

Let’s define our terms, to make sure we’re all clear who is who.  Look at this box first:

Everyone agrees when Baby Boomerhood began; the later generations’ demarcations are a bit more fuzzy.  But why the media keeps stressing the Millennials is just that there’s so many of them:  projected at over 81 million in 2036, compared to the next largest generation (their boomer parents) who peaked at 78.8 million in 1999.  According to the Pew Institute, “Though the oldest Gen Xer is now 50, the Gen X population will still grow for a few more years. In April of 2016, U.S. Census Bureau. Millennials, whom we (Pew Research) define as those ages 18-34 in 2015, numbered 75.4 million, surpassing the 74.9 million Baby Boomers (ages 51-69). And Generation X (ages 35-50 in 2015) is projected to pass the Boomers in population by 2028.”

So Millennials are the largest and fastest-growing group of consumers who bring the greatest life time value.  In the restaurant biz, 20+ somethings spend more than any other group on dining out, bar-hopping, and buying coffee drinks.  An interesting side note, according the Nielsen Global Out-of-Home Dining Survey (which polled more than 30,000 online respondents in 61 countries), reports that In North America, the type of cuisine served ranked as a close third behind reasonable prices and quality, and that exceeds the global average by nine percentage points. That’s for all ages.

Many believe in some key differences between Boomers and Millennials and the statistics seem to bear them out. Now, please remember as we go that we’re talking generalities.  So here goes:

Bring on the Adventure

Twenty-two-year old Kansas Citian Nicole Sifers notes a difference when she says, “I believe my generation is more open to trying new and different foods and restaurants and we are more willing to experiment with different cultures.”  She’s right as the numbers show that Millennials are more likely to choose ethnic and global cuisines and are more exploratory while Boomers enjoy more traditional American fare and classics and are overall, more conservative.
Scott Kalwei, owner and manager of Ruins Pub tends to agree with this assessment and caters to it.  “The younger people are more adventurous, open to new ideas.  I can see it in just the beer selections here which I rotate all the time – my older customers want to stick with a few they’ve always liked, the younger folks want to explore more, try new tastes.”

Digital, Digital, Digital

Millennials definitely are more attuned to the digital world and partake fully in its wonders.  According to Kelton, a strategic consultancy and research firm, social media is a game changer – 73% of Millennials say it’s important to read others’ opinions before food purchases.  This is a sentiment P.J. Preusser, a 23 year old Chicago native now in Kansas City as a consulting analyst at Cerner, agrees with.  He says, “Most of my friends and I ask for suggestions about new places not only from our friends, family, and coworkers but we definitely go to the internet as well.”

Yelp, where everyone’s a critic, touts their own statistics from a 2016 survey (2,000 consumers) which establish that 55% of Yelp users searching for restaurants have ordered takeout or delivery from a restaurant they found on Yelp. It is reasonable to assume similar numbers for actually choosing a restaurant.  The largest numbers of Yelp viewers and commentators are, you guessed it, younger – from 18 -34 at 39% while Boomers are less than 24% (in the category 55 years and up).  And gasp, 47% of Millennials report using social media while eating or drinking reports the Hartman Group and if you’re counting Facebook users, there’s 86 million of this age group, the largest segment, whiling away their hours.

Move Faster, Baby

Millennials tend to have more focus on convenience and fast service.  They want their meals to be good and a good value, sure, but they pay attention to speed with which they can get somewhere and once there, how long they (don’t) have to wait.

Abigayle Jobe, Kansas City, summarizes it well when she says, “I think that the younger generations prefer to eat out at establishments that provide fast service.  The most important restaurant aspects to me are the price being affordable, the service being quick, and the location being convenient.” Matthew Sabens, also 22, said his generation has much less “willingness to sit down for an indefinite amount of time for a meal. The boom of “fast-casual” food has been aided by the younger generation’s desire for fast meals.”  The message for restaurants here is clear:  even if you don’t consider yourself a “fast-casual” like Chipotle or Panera or 5 Guys, you better be able to deliver high value food quickly.

Girls Just Wanna Have Fun 

And guys, too, of course.  Mary Davis, with 25 years accumulated, says she wants, “The atmosphere to be laid back, not stuffy and also not super quiet.  If I’m with a group of friends, I want us to be able to openly have fun – which sometimes means a bit of volume.”  Boomers mostly want to be able to hear their companions easily – loud groups are not so much their preference any more.  Andre’s on Main is making some interesting structural changes to accommodate two different trends – more flexible seating so larger and different size groups can be accommodated (Millennials like to hang out longer) but they’ve also raised the ceiling to cut down the noise.  Millennial Nicole Sifers echoes that fun and money component: “I think my generation looks for the most fun eating experience with the best price.”  Makes sense.

Josh Rogers (33), who with Katee McLean (30) owns Krokstrom Klubb and Market, doesn’t really consider himself a Millennial because he says he had an “analog childhood and digital adulthood” – he was in college when he got his first cell phone.  He says they are fortunate that their restaurant, serving Scandinavian food, is so specialized that people of all ages choose it. He points out that their own preferences when they are able to dine out are “relatively simple and not age-related:  good beers, good food, good cocktails.  If it’s nice, is there a patio?”  Lots of Boomers are on that same quest he notes.

Rebecca Ng Clark, a millennial herself (depending on definition), whose family has owned Bo Lings for many years here, says that while they know many of their customers are older, and while Chinese food may be ageless since it can frequently be a new exploratory experience, they do think about the younger generations.  You see this especially when they add new dishes or craft cocktails or bubble teas.  She believes they have become a family restaurant – they see many generations together although their City Market and Plaza locations do seem to see more younger diners.

Nahhh, You’re Just Like Me

Both Millennials and Boomers seem pretty similar when it comes to health and wellness in eating out.  There is a difference, however, in how they define “healthy.”  The “youngsters” care more about “natural” (it just has to say it, however, because they tend not to research), “organic,” and locally grown while Boomers are more concerned about processed foods but both care about their health. Millennials eat more organic foods (30%) compared to Boomers (15%) according to Nielson.  Boomers have become more conscious of weight for health reasons rather than esthetics. Both groups think they eat better than their parents, believing their choices are healthier, less processed and more natural.  (Hartman Group)

Keitha Kaminski, Director at Webster House, however, does believe Millennials are more aware of what they eat, are more health conscious and she sees they like fresh, like real, like local especially.  They are one reason the restaurant’s Farmer Appreciation Dinners are so popular. She remarks that younger people pay attention to food with the same ardor they have for working out every day. Her diners may be what are called millennial food sophisticates who are likely to live on their own, half are urban dwellers, and at least half have a college degree and work full time.  These folks have a heightened awareness of food and culture but eating out may not be as “special” to them; Boomers mostly grew up eating out for special events only and may splurge more because of it while dining.  “YOLO” applies to them more, even though the youngsters came up with the term – plus they’re becoming more aware that you only live once, no matter what James Bond said.

Let’s Get Happy

Another thing both Boomers and Millennials love is happy hours.  And why wouldn’t they?  Both are paying attention to their wallets and appreciate good values, both like to drink, and both like to socialize, though Millennials may like to do it in larger groups.  One example of a restaurant catering to these trends is JJ’s, whose late night appetizer menu on Fridays and Saturdays until 1:30 a.m., is a clear call to the younger crowd. Owner Jimmy Frantze also points out that having happy hour from 4 p.m. to 7 every day of the week – definitely longer hours than most in town – appeals to both sides of the age equation.

Finally, I talked with Caitlin Katz, a Millennial living in Fairway, who summarized her restaurant business experience by saying, “The sheer volume of new restaurants and specialty restaurants opening up shows that eateries are trying to cater to Millennials or at the very least, account for their business. As Millennials are growing older and have more buying capital, it’d be silly if a restaurant didn’t factor them in. Extended happy hours, specialty dining experiences (a meal with a mixologist or learning to prepare the meal while eating it) or pop-up restaurants at unique venues are great ways to attract Millennials.”

I have to add, knowing what I know about K.C. Boomers and being one, I think much the same does apply to us, too.  At least some of us.  And probably everyone who reads The Restaurant Guide!  And I’m sure all of us are excitedly awaiting Gen Z’s effects on the eating scene.


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