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Consumer Trends and the Restaurants Vying for Generation Z

Generation Z is anyone born between 1997 and 2012. The adults in this population fall between the ages of 18 and 24 and, despite their young age, are already making their presence felt in the restaurant industry. This generation has lived their life in the wake of digital technology and has a growing number of young adults making decisions in the U.S. marketplace.

Recently, The NPD Group came out with Winning Gen Z Consumers, a report that identifies how to attract this increasingly important consumer. From July 2021-2022, Gen Zs visited restaurants about 5 billion times, and 4.3 billion visits were to quick-service restaurants. Here are a few forces shaping this generation’s behavior and how they will affect the restaurants gearing up to welcome the digital natives. 

The Call of Gen Z

Some of the considerations for Gen Z are restaurants serving organic, sustainably sourced, plant-based food. An NPD study found that 18% look for organic menu options, 16% want sustainably sourced food and beverages, and 10% prefer plant-based foods. Other essential factors include personalization and unique menu items that can’t be replicated at home. 

David Portalatin, an NPD food industry advisor, suggested three ways restaurants could appeal to this generation. “Restaurant operators can differentiate their brand with Gen Z by focusing on creative spins on classic foods, engaging relevant messaging, and generating value beyond price.” 

Peter Boivin, Vice President, Head of Industry, Restaurant at Vericast, spoke with the Food Institute. “Gen Z consumers grew up with choices, and they’re open to trying new restaurants. According to a Technomic Segmentation Study, 44% of Gen Z consumers are motivated to try a restaurant they have never visited if they have an incentive.”

This statement would suggest that restaurants that use incentives have an opportunity to entice this segment into their establishment. In addition, because of their adventurous nature, restaurants looking to attract this population should consider creative, global menu innovations and the restaurant experience

The State of the Restaurant Industry report that came out at the beginning of 2022 also found that 70% of Gen Zs would choose a restaurant based on their ability to add alcohol to a delivery or takeout order. Millennials were close behind with 62%.    

Restaurants Appealing to the Next Gen

WOWworks, the parent company of Saladworks, Frutta Bowls, The Simple Greek, and Garbanzo Fresh Mediterranean, is targeting the Gen Z market. The company reports that while they tend to have an adventurous streak, they also value simple, clean-label foods. In addition, this population has also been exposed to more multicultural, fusion dishes than previous generations.

Other restaurants catering to the younger generation include Panera Beard, which opened its first next-generation café in Ballwin, Missouri, in November 2021. It’s doubling down on drive-thru lanes, with the second lane for Rapid Pick-Up service, and enhancing the guest experience with a revitalized dine-in area around its signature fireplace. 

New digital innovations include contactless dine-in and delivery, automatic loyalty identification, a fully digitized menu, and ordering kiosks. In 2021, Panera Bread merged with Einstein Bros. Bagels and Caribou Coffee to become Panera Brands, one of the world’s largest fast-casual restaurant companies. 

Another example of a restaurant brand attracting the Gen Z crowd is Modern Market Eatery, a Denver-based fast-casual chain that opened its first location in Boulder, Colorado, in 2009. Its mission? To make it easy for their customers to eat delicious, clean, sustainable, whole food. It’s known for scratch-made, nurturing, healthy, and convenient food options. 

They currently have about 30 locations across Arizona, Colorado, and Texas and made Fast Casual’s “Top 100 Movers & Shakers” list. Recently, it announced plans to open in Des Moines, with 10 other markets following, including Charlotte, North Carolina, and Wichita, Kansas.

At EMERGING, we work with some of the top brands in social entertainment, helping restaurants determine their target customers, make informed expansion plans, and identify the most profitable locations based on data analytics. To learn more about your market and optimizing growth, contact EMERGING.


How do restaurants attract Gen Z?

Many Generation Zs are tech-savvy and globally-minded. Important issues are healthy, sustainable, and nutritious food. They may also like to try new and exclusive cuisines with some leaning toward vegan and plant-based meal options.

What is the best way to market to Gen Z?

According to Pew Research, about 76% of those ages 18-24 report using Instagram. It’s on this social media platform that Gen Zs follow influencers and their favorite restaurants. Therefore, build your Instagram presence. Upload photos and stories and engage. On social media, it’s especially important to stay active and be consistently present. 

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