Millennials: Who Do We Think We Are? (Part 2 – Millennials As Consumers)

MILLENNIALS:  Who Do We Think We Are?

Part 2 in a 5-Part Series:  What Restaurateurs & Business Owners Need to Know About Millennials

Millennials as Consumers

Continuing our series about Millennials, Part 2 focuses on Millennials as Consumers.  My goal with this series is to share first-hand information from the Millennial generation that will help restaurateurs and business owners who serve and employ them.  By interviewing a group of Millennials, I came away with expert-worthy commentary and a newfound appreciation for at least some of the quirks that make Millennials a generation unto themselves.  If you are a business owner – and especially a restaurateur – keep reading!

Menu Items & Restaurant Offerings

The Millennial influence on menu items and restaurant offerings continues to evolve.  While it’s unlikely that junk food will ever go completely out of style, Millennials are re-shaping the menus of established brands and they are influencing the menu creation for new concepts.

So what do Millennials expect on a restaurant menu and what do they look for in a restaurant experience?  The headline here is that variety is the spice of life. 

Millennials are looking for a flexible menu that caters to every kind of diet (vegetarian, low-calorie, vegan and gluten-free) which, in large part, is what most restaurants have gravitated toward and are currently offering.  With the majority of Millennials falling in the over-21 crowd, dining options that offer alcohol are an inherent draw.

Millennials say they want ‘familiar but also a bit of a twist to it”, citing tappas as an appealing ‘adult’ option.  “We want to be out with our friends but we don’t always want to pay for a full meal.  We look for places that offer Happy Hour drink specials and less expensive tappas/snacks instead of just appetizers.”

One of the reasons that junk food will never go out of style is simply because it tastes good.  With a shift in recent years toward health-conscious choices, an emphasis has been placed on healthier food that also tastes good.  Millennials say that the quality of ingredients is another draw for them and it is especially appealing if ingredients are sustainably sourced.  Having said that, at the end of the day, no matter how high the quality is or how sustainably sourced the ingredients are, if the taste of the food is only so-so, Millennials will lose interest and will opt to spend their dining dollars elsewhere.

The Dining Experience & Customer Service

While the majority of Millennials ate Happy Meals when they were younger and graduated to fast-casual choices once they were old enough to drive and hang out with friends, today’s preference is casual dining and attentive service.

An employee who provides a relatable guest experience is a huge asset for your establishment.  In particular, the words “pleasant” and “noteworthy” were mentioned as desirable attributes.  Most of us recognize a pleasant shopping or dining experience but what does it take to provide a noteworthy experience?  According to Millennials there are a few key things:

  • Millennials want to be served or helped by people who are “ridiculously like me”:
    • Similar age (“we don’t want to be waited on by our parents”)
    • Similar ‘look’ (clothes, tattoos, piercings)
    • Similar personality, sense of humor, out-goingness
  • Millennials strongly believe that hiring for personality is important:
    • “The person who takes care of us is a deciding factor in whether or not we will come back. If we get a bad server, we may never come back for a second visit even if the food is good because we feel that if one server is bad, the others probably are too.”
  • “Be good at what you do and be helpful”:
    • Restaurants: Don’t just know ABOUT the menu, really KNOW the menu.  “If I ask about something on the menu or ask about a substitution, don’t say “I don’t know”.
    • Retail: “If I ask, ‘Where would I find X?’ we don’t want the answer to be ‘I don’t really know’ (and then not offer to go find out or make the effort to be helpful).
  • Being responsive to customers’ needs vs. joking around among themselves
    • “If I need something, the server should be promptly responsive. If the food comes out but I need sour cream in order to enjoy it, waiting 20 minutes to get it can really ruin the whole meal.  By then, my food will be cold and my friends will be finished.”
    • Say Millennials, it is very off putting “to see servers joking around with each other and screwing up orders.”

Ambience & Must Haves

There are some Millennial-inspired trends affecting the hospitality industry but what’s good today may not be so good tomorrow.  Millennials notice and appreciate ambience.  “Eclectic, vintage, and mismatched vs. matchy-matchy” were specifically mentioned.  “Unique and different” were also added to the list.  When I asked for examples, they cited blow-torched and branded tables.  The most interesting comment was, “It’s hard to say – our trends change so fast!   I would hate to be a restaurant owner today because we have such short attention spans.”

A universal ‘must have’ across all Millennial lines is that every business needs to have very good Wi-Fi and they should have USB ports at almost every table.  Mediocre Wi-Fi for the sake of saying that you have it is immediately noticeable to Millennials.  They know they are impatient.  If they find themselves waiting for technology to respond, their proverbial red pen comes out and your business is likely to receive a failing grade.  Because Millennials hyper communicate, their peers will know that your business is not making the grade.

Dine-In vs. Take-Out or Delivery

For as much as Millennials love to eat out, eating at home has a noticeable appeal.  Millennials will swing by to grab take-out food on their way home or they will opt for delivery, either from restaurants that offers delivery or through third-party delivery services.  The keys to success in the take-out/delivery segment are CONVENIENCE and SPEED!  “We want good meals that we don’t have to prepare ourselves” which again speaks to discerning palates.  When a Millennial stops to pick up take-out food, they want the food to be ready fast.  For restaurants that partner with third-party delivery services, speed is also important because barely warm food will incite the red pen grading system.

Franchise or Chain vs. Independent

It seems to be common knowledge that Millennials value small, local establishments and are willing to pay a premium price.  “$12 for a specialty drink at an upscale place is okay because it was specially made vs. pre-prepared or basic,” is a pointed comment that was shared.  However, I noticed an interesting dichotomy when it comes to dining dollars.  Millennials often say that “90% of the time, a hole in the wall place is better” and “we would rather get quality and prefer to go somewhere ‘different’ versus the tried and true”.  In Denver, Millennials prefer Stella’s coffee shop “because it’s a one-off.  The drinks are amazing and unique versus just like every other place.”

While small, local restaurants may, in theory, be Millennials’ preference, they continue to cast dining dollar votes with franchised concepts – but even then, they are selective.  Fast service and deals are appealing to Millennials, yet they value being different and “don’t want to feel like high schoolers by going to Noodles all the time.”  The reality is that if Millennials go cheap on some occasions, it allows them to splurge more often on the upscale places they prefer. 

Loyalty Programs

Whether your business is an independent or a franchise, loyalty programs can increase your business – but only if they are done the right way.  Millennials agree that loyalty programs are hugely important, yet they will bypass or even jump ship if it’s too complicated or too much of a hassle.

“Qdoba used to be easy but now it’s too much work,” said one Millennial.  Said another, “At Starbucks, your 11th drink is free but only if you use a prepaid debit card.  I don’t want to be forced to replenish a Starbucks debit card so I don’t go to Starbucks as often as I used to.”

Millennials admit they are lazy.  “If we have to give our email address or carry around a card, we’re less likely to do that vs. just having an app on our phone.”  It seems there is a happy medium here:  “I’ll do it if it’s just points and all I have to do is give my phone number but if it’s more complicated than that, I won’t do it”.

As one of the Millennials mentioned earlier in this article, being the owner of a restaurant that serves Millennials is no easy feat.  On the very positive side, there are a LOT of Millennials and they really enjoy eating out – and eating in, as the case may be.  On the flip side, their preferences have nothing to do with a restaurant’s profitability so in their eyes, the sky is the limit in terms of their wants and expectations.  In reality, iron sharpens iron and necessity is often the mother of invention so what was once impossible (a menu that caters to every dietary need) or even highly unlikely (high quality AND reasonably priced) can actually end up creating the next new ‘norm’.  Do you want your restaurant to stay on Millennials’ preferred-dining list?  I’m sure a few complimentary food items and drinks could lead to the best impromptu focus group session you’ve had in a long time!

Stay tuned for future articles in this series

  • Part 3 – Marketing to Millennials
  • Part 4 – Millennials as Employees
  • Part 5 – Millennials as Business Owners