In a recent report from Suillivan Higdon & Sink FoodThink titled "QSRs and America's Changing Tastes," researchers highlighted quick-service restaurant consumer trends, from more desire in menu variety to the differences between what women and men look for in a quick-service restaurant. Senior FoodThink researcher Erika Chance answered QSR Magazine's questions about the report.

The report talks about cost, quality, and location being the main motivators for dining at a quick-service restaurant. But is it possible that a unique experience could outweigh any of those motivators and if so, which one? 
Certainly, a unique experience can outweigh cost and location—at least, some of the time. We all know regional chains that have national cult followings partly because of the concept’s relative scarcity of location. In addition, if the experience is highly unique or highly specialized, some consumers can be persuaded to accept lower quality though, in those cases, frequency can become an issue.  

Besides location, quality, and cost, what are some areas in which motivators align across various demographics? 
People also are driven by options and variety. Fourty percent of consumers consider menu variety to be extremely or very important to them when choosing a quick service restaurant. This degree of importance holds true for males and females, parents, high-income and low-income adults, and Millennials and Gen X-ers. Boomers and pre-Boomers care somewhat less about menu variety. Millennials, parents, and those who prefer organic food also crave new, innovative flavors and menu items and snack sizes. Looking at the buying power of these groups, it’s clear that the days of a limited, non-customizable menu are gone. Quick-service restaurant customers of today and especially tomorrow are going to be motivated by creativity and customization which allows them to get exactly what they are craving.

What is the balance between slowing down serving speeds and customization? If consumers want quick-service restaurants to fit into their busy lifestyles, will they have to sacrifice customization? 
Everything we’ve seen indicates that customers simply don’t expect to sacrifice customization when they want quick service. And there are many concepts that encourage high levels of customization. That can be highly appealing to some customers. And it will continue to grow in importance.

Right now, who is the target customer for a quick-service restaurant?
In the most general sense, today’s quick-service restaurants are targeting the Millennial customer. Certainly there will be particular demographics or psychographic characteristics within this broad group that individual brands may cater their offering toward. But the buying power of this generation is growing. And just over 50 percent of them eat fast food once a week or more—a much greater percentage than older generations. On top of that, these on-the-go individuals and families rely on restaurant offerings on a very frequent basis. 

What sets Millenials apart from other demographics in terms of what they look for in a quick-service restaurant?

Millennials’ tastes and needs deserve the attention from today’s quick service restaurants. For example, Millennials will say unique drinks and desserts, innovative menu ideas, and interesting flavors can sway them to one quick-service restaurant over the other—from Taco Bell’s newly launched breakfast menu that targets specifically younger Millennial men to Pizza Hut’s recent flavor profile revamp of its pizzas to include more sophisticated flavor combinations that appeal to Millennials. It’s critical to capture this audience, not only because they’re frequent users, but they’re also likely influencers: heavy quick-service restaurant users, Millennials, are 37 percent more likely than the average consumer to follow a restaurant on social media. Some other notable things that set this consumer segment apart is their desire for good kids menus since many in the older half of the generation are starting families.


The report talks about consumers wanting more options for sides. Through the research, did you find if this meant healthier sides or sides falling into similarity with fries, like onion rings and chips?
While the research didn’t specifically explore what other options for sides consumers want, we did learn consumers desire a bigger variety of sides in general, from healthy to flavorful. But, based on the fact that 58 percent of consumers say healthy options are important when choosing a quick service restaurant and that parents and organic food shoppers are more likely to express desire for more side options than the general population, it can be inferred that healthy side options are pretty important. The bottom line is that consumers expect to have the ability to select between a variety of sides, including healthy ones, if they opt to. 

The report talks about overcoming the veto vote by including some healthy options. How do you think quick-service restaurants with specialties or niches that aren't healthy food do this without having it seem like an afterthought? 
Let’s keep in mind that 61 percent of consumers believe it’s possible to eat healthy at a quick-service restaurant. And we agree with them. Quick service restaurant leaders who satisfy particular cravings can still be deliberate in expanding their menus to include healthier options. There’s no better time than right now to provide some innovation in this area of the menu. 

What did you find were some of the biggest differences between men and women in what they were looking for in a quick-service restaurant? 
The differences between what appeal to men and women are really interesting. Women are driven by some of the intangible, subjective elements of their food and experience. Hot buttons for them are health, the ability to customize their order, and the perceived quality of the food and establishment. Men, however, focus more on the menu items themselves and the flavor variety available for them to pick from. They’re much more likely to be won over by desserts, drinks, combo meal options, and even sauces. For example, dads are twice more likely than average to say dessert options are important to them when choosing a quick-service restaurant.

By Alex Dixon

Consumer Trends, News, Operations, FoodThink