Restaurants work to embrace, engage Gen Z

Successful efforts require multi-dimensional planning

Understanding the Gen Z consumer is paramount to restaurant operators’ survival in this now-digital-heavy world. In this new era, accelerated by COVID-19, consumers of all ages are embracing technology adoption; however, Gen Z consumers will be the most demanding when it comes to convenience and technology. To attract and market to the Gen Z consumer, restaurants must adapt with strategies that make convenience their first priority, and keep menu innovation as a top imperative.

Menus will need to show diversity and creativity. According to researchers, Gen Z consumers (typically, those born in the mid-to late-90s through 2010) are adventurous in their dining habits, but also tend to skew toward flexitarian, vegetarian, and generally healthy foods. This puts culinary creativity in the forefront, as restaurants incorporate international influence in their kitchens.

Gen Z and Millennials are almost single-handedly driving the trend toward meat and milk analogues, reports NPD, a food research firm based in Chicago. These younger generations are making choices that are sustainable for the planet, healthy for themselves, and socially conscious for causes such as animal welfare, NPD reveals. “As consumers continue to prepare more meals in the home and younger generations cook more, plant-based foods and ingredients will be a part of their repertoire,” says Darren Seifer, NPD food industry analyst and co-author of “The Future of Plant-based Snapshot: The Evolution of Plant-based Continues”.

Consumer demand for plant-based foods has remained consistent even through the pandemic, due mainly to Gen Z and Millennial consumption. According to NPD’s report, one in five adults indicate they want more plant-based foods in their diets—a trend that continued throughout 2020. The International Food Industry Council notes that 52% of consumers aged 18 to 34 are more likely to have tried a diet of some kind. Plant-based diets are the 7th most popular regimens overall, following the Ketogenic or high-fat diet and flexitarian diets.

Gen Z has become a key target audience of WOWorks, the parent of Saladworks, Frutta Bowls, Garbanzo Fresh Mediterranean, and The Simple Greek. As Gen Z consumers and Millennials comprise 60% of the US population, these consumers are an appealing customer base. The company says this demographic seeks food that is healthy, nutritious and satisfying. Gen Z consumers tend to be more adventurous eaters, while at the same time valuing simplicity and clean-label foods. Many of these young adults and teenagers have been exposed to fusion foods and more multicultural dishes than previous generations.

Enhancing industry players’ understanding of the need for convenience

Another demographic trait is the desire for convenience, WOWorks notes. Its brands have been addressing this through growth in dine-in, carryout, online ordering, curbside pick-up, delivery, ghost kitchens, food trucks, virtual brands and non-traditional stores. The company struck a deal for Saladworks and Saladworks-Frutta Bowls co-branded stores to open inside Walmart stores. ShopRite and The Fresh Grocer are other retailers that will host WOWorks’ brands.

WOWorks' Frutta Bowls is a brand with attributes that appeal to Millennials and Gen Z. Photo by WOWorks.
WOWorks’ Frutta Bowls is a brand with attributes that appeal to Millennials and Gen Z. Photo by WOWorks.

“We are at the dawn of shifting consumer demand for more personalized, customized and convenience-focused dining occasions,” says Kelly Roddy, chief executive of WOWorks. “Guests today demand what they want, how they want it and where they want it. We are perfectly positioned with our ability to let our guests customize their meals with build-your-own options.”

A total of 46% of Gen Z and 58% of Millennials eat out at least once per week, according to Nielsen. Research found in the National Restaurant Association’s 2021 State of the Industry report, however, reveals some interesting nuances in dining behavior. After the pandemic, only 83% of Gen Z consumers wanted to return to restaurants compared to 88% of all adults. And only 76% of Gen Zers, compared to 85% of all adults, feel that going out with family & friends gives them a way to socialize with others.

This suggests that Gen Z “foodies” enjoy engaging with dining in alternative ways than on-premises at restaurants, including food delivery, non-traditional foodservice (convenience and grocery stores) and home meal kits. Restaurant operators will find it more difficult to attract Gen Z without offering delivery or providing easy and convenient digital ordering options.

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Finessed marketing, response to digital adoption are key

Marketing to Gen Z should include more personalized advertising, says Data Axle, in its report, Generational Shifts in Marketing Preferences. Personalization is most important to Millennials and Gen Zers. While email has been a go-to communication tool for reaching most consumers, social media is the top communication choice for Gen Z. Says Robert Kapfhammer, president of Ad Cucina, an agency specializing the restaurant and foodservice industries, “Gen Z is online ‘almost constantly’ spending more time on mobile devices (an average of 11 hours per week) and streams more content (an average of 23 hours of video content a week) than any other generation.”

He notes that multi-unit operators should pay attention to channels, like Tik Tok, YouTube and Instagram, as they are important channels to reach Gen Z customers. WOWorks says it is finding opportunity in 1) Demographics, 2) Psychographics, 3) Self-Expression and 4) Connection. These traits keep the brand relevant and appealing to Gen Z consumers. Roddy adds, “Our goal at WOWorks is for each of our brands to engage their guests holistically on a deeper, more emotional level that is timely, relevant, motivating and compelling to who they are and who they want to become. We use social media, and talk to them where they are and with their language. We have also utilized social influencers to market to Gen Z consumers.”

As the generation that was born after smartphones, Gen Z consumers are some of the most sophisticated when it comes to technology.They and Millennials have helped fuel an appetite for digital ordering. App and mobile ordering has become their expectation. According to the State of the Industry report, 57% of Gen Z and 64% of Millennial respondents say that ordering carryout/delivery is “essential to the way they live.”

For both on-premises and off-premises dining, smartphone-app ordering is important to Gen Z diners. Thirty-seven percent of these young adults and teenagers say that the ability to order and pay with smartphones will make them choose one restaurant over another. For delivery, that number climbs to 40%.

Incidentally, most consumers—64% per the report—want to order delivery directly from restaurants. For Gen Z, that number drops to 58%, indicating a lower sense of affinity for restaurant versus third-party delivery.

Deloitte’s 2021 The Restaurant of the Future: A Vision Evolves report indicates that 61% of consumers overall have ordered some form of takeout, whether carryout or delivery, at least once per week. With that consistent frequency of ordering, it’s plain to see how the modern, young consumer is ramping up the demand for restaurants to implement solid off-premises dining strategies.

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