When researchers at the NPD Group started looking into changing consumption patterns, they noticed something odd and unprecedented: though Millennials are in a stage of life when people traditionally opt for convenience over freshness, this generation of consumers is increasing its consumption of fresh foods more than any other age group. That means fewer frozen pizzas at home, and more meals with ingredients like eggs, vegetables, and grains.  

A thorough understanding of the factors driving this trend may be the key to catching this increasingly important demographic and getting them back out to restaurants as the economy recovers and consumers have more disposable income for dining out. One thing is certain: Millennials still want the convenience afforded by limited-service restaurants, but they are looking for fresh items that fit their evolving definition of health, which is more focused on food quality, sourcing, and freshness than it is about low-calorie or low-fat foods.   

Restaurant industry analyst for the NPD Group, Bonnie Riggs, says that build-you-own fast casuals are doing a good job of showcasing the quality of ingredients and allowing consumers to dictate portion sizes, but that the segment has also had the effect of turning customers off from frozen or heat-lamp-warmed ingredients. Still, she says quick serves have plenty of open avenues for capitalizing on this trend. She suggests new promotional strategies that hearken back to Domino’s 2010 marketing campaign in which the brand trash-talked its own pizza to show its new commitment to improving the quality of its ingredients by tracing and showcasing its product all the way back to its farmland roots.  

This kind of marketing—with a focus on food narrative and quality—can help re-wed health food and satisfaction, so consumers can feel good about what they’re eating without feeling like they’re depriving themselves.

“Chipotle is not low-calorie by any means,” Riggs says. “But it has a lot of good-for-you things in it, and their positioning is fresh and healthy—they’ve really found a way to express the ‘realness’ of the food in a way that resonates.”

By giving consumers the convenience they want while still allowing healthy, customizable, and affordable options, quick serves can catch up to fast casuals, and fast casuals can give more new customers a break from their home kitchens.

By Emily Byrd

Consumer Trends, Fast Casual, Menu Innovations, News, Ordering, Chipotle