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Look out quick serves: Generation Y, aka the Millennial Generation, is coming on strong. From third-graders to grownups pushing 30, they want it their way from Burger King and every other industry player. The smart restaurants will make sure to comply, because the Millennials number 92 million, making them the largest generation in the country. And they aren’t the grin-and-bear-it type.
“Like most people, those of the Millennial Generation value an operation that takes responsibility for its products and services, is honest in the way it conducts its business, and makes customers feel like they matter,” says Lee Igel, assistant professor at New York University’s Preston Robert Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism and Sports Management. “But their feelings about all of this, and the way they react to good or poor products and services, are more intense than those of prior generations.”
Call it “intense” or “demanding” or even “spoiled,” there are reasons Millennials, generally defined as the people born between 1981 and 2002, have such high expectations of businesses. One is that, having grown up coddled by their parents during “one of the great child-protection movements in American history,” according to Neil Howe, an authority on generations, Millennials naturally believe they deserve the best.
Out of the Mouths of Babes
Special: “I will not tip as well if my server doesn’t make me feel like they’re speaking to me, seeing me, serving me.”
-Anqi Li, 21, Phoenix, Arizona
Neotraditional: “We’re a group of young people molding our own conventional lifestyles. We are organizing city farms, we’re conscious of our impact on our environment, and we’re blurring the lines of traditional families. We are the ‘I’ll take organic milk and ride my bike’ kids, and I think we’re headed in the right direction.”
-Mary Scott, 22, San Francisco, California
Sheltered: “I think I am somewhat sheltered when it comes to knowing about different kinds of food. I wish I knew more. I’m not a picky eater and am willing to try anything!”
-Lindsay Kay, 22, Raleigh, North Carolina
Driven to achieve: “I remember numerous instances when I felt the teacher was mistaken and I truly had the best approach to a problem. Challenging what has been typically accepted and successfully reframing these values to fall in line with our own ideals has promoted us to believe the idea of ‘Yes, we (Gen Y) can’.”
-Becky Baird, 24, Hamilton, Ohio
“They think they are all collectively special,” says Howe, whose consulting firm, LifeCourse Associates, has advised Darden Restaurants and White Castle. “Millennials always like feeling that they are being rewarded.”
In his writings, Howe identified what he considers the seven core traits of Millennials. They are: special, sheltered, confident, team-oriented, conventional (or “neotraditional”), pressured, and, unlike their predecessors in Generation X, driven to achieve.
Each of these traits has implications for the restaurant industry. Take the Millennials’ orientation toward teamwork, groups, and community. It is this characteristic that has driven the rise of social media sites like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, which have transformed the way restaurants reach out to their customers and build brand awareness. A strong Internet presence is now an imperative for any restaurant looking to expand, and many companies dedicate a lot of time and money to improving their web strategies.
But the Millennial Generation is looking for more than Facebook group pages and cutesy tweets. Its desire for community is deep, Howe says, and restaurants need to make sure they are building relationships with their customers that extend beyond the Internet.
“Social media can be a mile wide and an inch deep,” he says. “What is an individual Domino’s franchise doing in its own neighborhood? And what does it show off that it’s doing? I think that might be actually more crucial.”
Howe says restaurants can adapt to the Millennials’ community spirit in various ways.
“Community actually has several important implications for the restaurant industry,” he says. “One is the extent to which restaurants make it easy for people to come in and eat in groups. Is it easy for them to make group reservations? Can a lot of people come in? Can they have exclusive functions?
“That’s the literal side of groups,” Howe says. “The wider definition is connection with the community. … Does the restaurant have any sign that it’s interested in the issues that are important to the community, or in groups that are important to the community? Does it belong to any community organizations? Does it offer special deals for community events?
“When you have a more community-oriented generation,” Howe says, “it’s very important the restaurant industry take advantage of that.”
One chain that has realized this is Burgerville, which has 39 locations in the Pacific Northwest. The company has a diverse community-outreach strategy, which includes the Nomad, a mobile kitchen that cruises the streets of Portland, Oregon, and a “Community of Champions” initiative that recognizes locals championing fresh foods.
Both tactics “give Burgerville a face,” says CEO Jeff Harvey. This is a must for restaurants looking to appeal to Millennials, a demographic driven by “a whole bunch of different motivations at the same time.”
“We’ve translated it as, we’d better be creative, we’d better bring a lot of different flavor profiles, we’d better be willing to rotate menu offerings on a regular basis, we’d better have robust stories to tell about how we’re making a difference” in the community, Harvey says.
Burgerville’s efforts to appeal to Millennials also extend to restaurant design. The company embraced a lounge atmosphere because its college-age customer base wants it that way, Harvey says.
“Companies in our line of work have to be ready to adapt and adapt quickly,” Harvey says.
Burgerville’s strategy says something crucial about what Millennial diners are looking for. Food and flavors still matter, especially since Generation Y is an ethnically diverse group hungry for more international menu items. But restaurants have to offer much more than good fare to be successful. In line with their own emphasis on achievement, Millennials want restaurants that excel in all aspects of their business, from food to service to design.