What age group spent $78 billion in restaurants in 2016 and may or may not even be of legal drinking age yet? Wait for it.

It’s Generation Z, also known as the iGeneration, Post-Millennials, Plurals; people age 21 or younger who were born in the mid-90s to early ‘00s, and who came of age in a time when iPads were everywhere, all mobile phones were smartphones, and social media was the norm.

They’ve witnessed the debilitating effects of excessive student loan debt on the millennials, and are factoring cost and debt into their education decisions in the first place. They’re connected, they’re aware, and they know that they are responsible for creating their own career path.

When it comes to dining out, they’re more conscious of price than their millennial predecessors, but only 67 percent of them consider the nutritional content of their food. That’s a 13 percent drop from millennials, a group that dines out 20 percent more than their predecessors, boomers.

Although Generation Z can’t even drink yet and have limited funds, they are driving profound changes that are impacting changing restaurant industry trends and forcing restaurant managers to take a hard look at their menus so they are best able to serve and profit from this group.

So what are they eating? This group has three magic words when it comes to the food they crave: natural, organic and sustainable; however they have specific favorites as well, including:

Street foods are in—42 percent want innovative and ethnic cuisines on the menu as Generation Z is the most culturally diverse cohort and as such they prefer a diverse menu.

“Go to” snacks are becoming the norm—The snacking trend will continue to increase as the lines blur between meals, and “all day snack menus” become increasingly popular. Twenty-three percent of Generation Z say they prefer to build a meal of appetizers or snack foods.

Chicken is the preferred protein of choice—with 46 percent of Generation Z saying it’s their dinner of choice. Hopefully a 10-year low price on eggs means good things for chicken prices, too?

Burgers still rule—Although chicken is a fan favorite among Generation Z, hamburgers are one of the top 3 foods for this generation, with pizza rounding out the trio. 

Also, being exposed to digital technology almost literally from birth has created an expectation of transparency with Generation Z, wanting to know more about where their food it sourced.  Even the youngest diners are paying more attention to the planet, and what our actions are doing to the planet. And teens are putting their money where their mouths are, opting to spend at restaurants that share in these beliefs.

Generation Z also has a connected outlook on food. While it’s true that millennials value the full dining experience more than other generations, the connectivity of Generation Z is not to be rivaled. Diners in Generation Z have never been to a restaurant without a phone in hand. That means their reliance on technology is much heavier. Splitting checks, previewing the menu on Facebook, and even posting online reviews in real time is standard practice.

With that in mind, it comes as no surprise that this generation is ordering takeout from restaurants more than any other generation.  With grab-and-go food trends like poke bowls and acai bowls on the rise, there has been a 26 percent drop of interest among teens in the full service restaurant experience. Generation Z is much more about taking food to-go and sitting outside or at home, not in a restaurant. This behavior is further fueling the latest “couch to table” movement, with more and more people are eating their meals from home. The restaurants who will be most successful will be the ones who learn to meet and serve consumers wherever they are—either at a table in the restaurant or while ordering from their iPhone. New solutions are starting to come onto the market that simplify the online ordering experience with the restaurants in mind—namely, integrating directly into a restaurant’s POS so they can not only manage the orders more efficiently, but also better track customer data.  

So, what’s a restaurant owner to do? Smart owners will evolve along with their diners and embrace changing habits. To address Generation Z food preferences, keep your restaurant menu fresh, sustainable, and innovative. And don’t forget to cater to the snack all day crowd. Also, get yourself an online ordering and delivery service to help make yourself more money. Get to know your next generation of customers—they are ready to eat, make sure you are ready to serve.

Jesse Noyes is the Senior Director of Marketing at Upserve, the industry’s leading full-service Restaurant Management Platform. 
Compliance, Consumer Trends, Outside Insights, Story