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Catching Z’s: Waking Up to Differences Between Gen Z and Millennials


By now, you may feel like you’ve gotten your fill of frenzied commentary on how millennials are transforming the foodservice industry. But the fact is, with 75.4 million members, they’ve surpassed the 74.9 million boomers to take their place as they nation’s largest generation.1 Their sheer numbers justify the attention they’ve been drawing. They’re a target market that promises rich rewards for foodservice operators who hit the mark.

But just as millennials took the torch from baby boomers, Gen Z is on the cusp of transforming foodservice with new expectations, tastes and opportunities. Not to be ignored, the new kids on the block are elbowing their way onto the scene and demanding their rightful place at the table of snack trendsetters.

Comprising 23 million young upstarts born between 1996 and the present,2 they represent a huge population swell of up-and-coming consumers whose buying power and market influence will only grow as they get older. Though many are too young to buy their own snacks and meals, as a rising and fast-growing demographic block they stand poised to have a far-reaching impact in the marketplace and shape the trends the rest of us will adopt.

Hanging Out and Logging In

While it’s undeniable that Gen Z will be a driving force in years to come, they’re already making a measurable impact, accounting for $78 billion spent at restaurants as they gobble up the second-largest share of restaurant visits, right behind baby boomers.3

Technomic research shows that socializing is a key aspect of the Gen Z dining experience. 58% of them love to eat out with their families, and 47% of them have input in what restaurants their families choose.4 Peer dining dynamics show even greater involvement: 62% of Gen Zers decide with friends what restaurants to visit.4 Gen Zers’ passion for social snacking is feeding the bottom line for brands with locations, with Pinkberry, Ben & Jerry’s and Jamba Juice among their favorites.4

As “the generation most likely to use technology to their advantage when choosing a foodservice operation,”4 they’re likely to compel foodservice operators to focus more attention on developing and improving e-commerce capabilities, mobile marketing and social media outreach. In this area too, the new generation’s impact is already being felt: 58% of them order food on a laptop compared to 38% of millennials, while 52% place orders most frequently on restaurant websites.4

The A-B-Cs of Gen Z Differentiation

So what are the other key differences between millennials and Gen Z?

Favoring flavor over sustainability: While millennials put great emphasis on sustainability, Gen Z is less concerned about where food comes from than taste and flavors. Like millennials, they favor quick-service establishments, but they underindex millennials and baby boomers when asked about the importance of hot-button topics like locally sourced ingredients, unprocessed food, grass-fed proteins and authentic ingredients.4 < The craveability factor is the driving force in Gen Z food preferences. Cleanliness matters, but not necessarily clean labels. Food taste and flavor (56.6%), utensil cleanliness (55.1%), and food quality (53%) top the menu of musts for Gen Z.4 <

Reigning in millennial excess: As the post-9/11 and Great Recession generation, Gen Z was born into a more risk-conscious world, where safety can’t be taken for granted and economic uncertainty is the norm. As a result, they tend to be more pragmatic and thrifty than millennials and less likely to splurge on food. But that doesn’t mean they’re willing to skimp on quality. Because of the previous generation’s insistence on trustworthy food, Gen Z has come to expect high quality as a given as they ramp up demand for variety. Thanks to growing up with access to a wide range of cuisine, their palates crave diversity and bold, unique flavors, but their practicality compels them not to take big bites of their budgets.

Tech as second nature and first priority: Unlike millennials who remember the emergence of smartphones and the rise of social media, Gen Zers view the digital landscape as a natural part of the world into which they were born. Ordering food on their smartphones and sharing pictures of snacks they find appealing or out of the ordinary is a common occurrence for them. Weaned on tech’s convenience, efficiency and customization, they have the well-honed ability to multitask across multiple devices, including TV, cell phones, laptops, desktop computers and portable music players. As children of all things digital, they favor paying with debit cards, Venmo or Apple Pay over cash.2

Catering to the new kids: Remember the craveability rule: flavor is the way to find favor with Gen Z. Keep in mind that technology has trained them to expect customization in all aspects of their lives, so opportunities to mix and match and build their own snacks and meals will appeal to them. It’s also important to please their pocketbooks as well as their palates. Instead of fancy and high-priced fare, Gen Z gravitates toward tasty options that satisfy their appetite for money-saving offers distributed through digital marketing channels like mobile or social media. And when you think social marketing, think Instagram, Snapchat or Vine.

As they head off to college and enter the workforce, Gen Z will serve up a feast of opportunities to acquire new customers and build brand loyalty. Stay ahead of the curve by keeping on top of their needs and preferences, and you’ll be headed in the right direction to help drive sales to the next level.

1 Fry, Richard, Millennials overtake Baby Boomers as America’s largest generation, Pew Research Center, Apr. 25, 2016

2 Taylor, Marygrace, “Move over millennials: Here’s what you need to know about Gen Z,” Food Management, Aug. 23, 2016

3 Glazer, Fern, “Move over millennials: Gen Z takes a seat at the table,” Restaurant News, June 29, 2016

4 Technomic SmartSupport, The Gen Z Selfie custom report, June 2016

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