November 15th, 2013

The Keys to Attracting Millennials

Posted in Restaurants, Trends

Estimates of anywhere from 59 million to 82 million people make up this demographic called Millennials, Generation Y, or digital natives. Whichever term you prefer, the generation that was born during the late 1970’s to early 2000’s is one with which to reckon. Partner that with the fact that over 40% of this generation is multi-cultural, you have the most ethnically diverse generation in recorded history.

Known for their technological savvy and ease with the Internet, Millennials are considered the “Now” generation by many, although this seems to be too simplistic of a generalization. While it is easy to see why a generation that is used to an answer the minute they click Google’s search button wouldn’t expect any less than an immediate answer, there is more to this complex group than one would expect at first glance.

According to Technomic, 41 percent of Millennials eat away from home at least twice weekly. Compared to Generation X (47 percent) and Boomers (31 percent), Millennials (67 percent) also desire more ethnic foods on menus.

The reason for this is quite plain: compared to earlier generations, Millennials are more ethnically diverse, more extensively travelled, and have been exposed to more diverse cuisines. Because of this, they expect authentic dishes: if you are going serve Hummus or Bulgogi, make sure it tastes like the real thing. Don’t worry though, authentic flavor is one thing, how it’s packaged is more flexible: Millennials love variety. Just make sure that fusion dish on your menu is memorable.

One important aspect of the eating experience for the Millennial is the sense of community. Since it is common for the Millennial to live in a blended household, often including parents, or grandparents, the restaurant serves as a get-away for the average Gen Y’er. We are seeing more often that the restaurant is becoming a hub for the generation, so the volume has been turned up on the music and the vibe. Noise has become such a phenomenon at certain restaurants, that restaurant critics now carry decibel meters. This seems to be related to the fact that the Millennial generation has replaced nightclubs with restaurants as their primary hang out spot. Communal tables also figure prominently in the landscape of this generation’s restaurants. What better way to feel part of something, than to share a table?

And when you are considering this demographic, do not discount your day-parts! More often than ever, we are eating more snacks and less sit down meals. Offering more small plate and shareable dishes translates well for Millennials. Companies the likes of Olive Garden and Applebee’s have answered this need with smaller tapas-style plates and half-price appetizers respectively.

Another of the key characteristics of this generation is a desire for social change. The company that understands this about the Gen Y’er, will find themselves successful. Take for instance, Firehouse Subs. A core driver for the company is the fact that a certain percent of their sales goes to buying new equipment for firefighters. The company makes their unique story part of their brand, and this resonates loud and clear with Millenials.

Being socially conscious is not lost on restaurant chains, with Chipotle leading the pack with a promise to source meat that has been humanely raised. Not only that, they have added vegan beans and tofu to their menu in limited test area. Now vegans can enjoy Chipotle as well.

Panera made a change to its marketing strategy as well, with the slogan “Live Consciously. Eat Deliciously.” The clip has been recently making air play, but you can view it here:

The brand has also recently launched Panera Cares, a restaurant where you pay only what you can afford. This is much in the vein of the restaurant owned by Jon Bon Jovi, called Soul Kitchen, where you can volunteer for your food, or pay what you can afford.

The Millennial generation is by far the most technologically advanced to date, and attracting them as a whole requires a brand’s ability to engage with a customer on their terms. The average Millennial takes technology for granted, expecting information of their fingertips. And traditional marketing does not work either: the majority of Millennials tend to shy away from traditional TV promo ads and print media. Once again, we find Chipotle at the head of the pack with their recent YouTube video, which garnered over 7 million views. Its subtle message that only briefly mentions the brand is both memorable and timely. The scarecrow in the video is an overt symbol of how we need to protect our food, with Chipotle leading the way in creating a transparent food supply chain. They even have the game “The Scarecrow” available in the ITunes store to connect further with customers.

Other companies, like Blimpie Subs, are also offering game apps as a way to engage customers, and increase loyalty. Their game “Blimpie Run”, available on IPhone and Android, has their hero “Del E. Fresh” collecting fresh deli ingredients on his way to the Blimpie Sub shop. The more the customer plays, the more likely they are to win free Blimpie Subs for a year:

Restaurant chain Cosi ran a sweepstakes called “Fall into Cosi” where customers could bring in mobile or print game pieces to win a trip to Paris or other prizes. The sweepstakes ran through October 31st and highlighted the new limited-time fall menu, which features the BBQ pork and Cheddar melt and the apple crunch chicken sandwich.

Not only are they playing games online, Millennials are more likely to view your menu online. Fifty-nine percent (Technomic) of Millennials checking for an online menu before they ever reach your establishment. If you are lacking a good online menu (preferably in smartphone format), you may likely lose the crowd altogether.

Whether you are a Millennial or not, it is important to understand what this generation desires: authenticity, social conscience, and technology.

November 1st, 2013

Local, Seasonal, Feasible

Posted in Locally Grown, New Foods and Flavors, Organic, Restaurants, Trends

There is a lot of talk about local sourcing of products these days in the restaurant world. And for good reason: diners demand and expect to know where their food comes from. On a local level, it may seem to be an easy and straightforward enterprise to integrate fresh and local products into your menu.

But what happens when you throw in a large supply chain? And what about if your different locations are divided by states lines? No doubt there are challenges of economy that need to be addressed as well as affordability and proximity. Is it economically feasible or even wise for a chain restaurant to go after the local angle? And in some cases, it is a matter of semantics and how the word “local” is defined.

To answer these questions, let’s look at some chain restaurants that utilize seasonal /local products successfully:

Seasons 52 – the very philosophy of this Darden-held restaurant resonates with the spirit of the farmer’s market. With a commitment to serve only the freshest and ripest produce, Seasons 52 has dubbed itself a “change” restaurant as opposed to a chain restaurant because they believe change and innovation to be core to their success. They have also landed themselves on the ’50 Breakout Brands’ list composed by While they do not tout themselves as local, they do showcase produce to their advantage.

Sweetgreen – started by 3 Millennials in 2007, the company has made a commitment to source local and to source organic if it cannot source local. They build their salads around what is in season as well. With already 13 units in operation, their model is one for other up and coming brands to watch, as they do very well with the Millennial crowds.

Chipotle – with a commitment to purchase as much locally grown and organic produce and meat as possible, Chipotle is the model that many other chains are mimicking. They have over 1400 units, so their success is a testament to the vision of the founder. Yet they make it clear that they only buy local and organic when it’s feasible, which seems to be rather open for interpretation. Their definition of local is within 350 miles and that includes predominantly peppers, tomatoes, cilantro, and avocados.

Tender Greens – a LA based chain of 13 restaurants, with a philosophy of ‘Slow food done fast’, their commitment to locally sourcing all ingredients is highly ambitious. Because of this commitment, the menus between the different locations are seasonally driven and chef-crafted by some of the best chefs in the industry. Time will tell if their expansion beyond the boundaries of California will be successful. Currently 90% of the products served at their establishments are produced in California. With the first location outside of California slated for opening in Chicago, it could prove challenging due to shorter growing seasons and droughts in the area. One way that Tender Greens hopes to accomplish this is through their partnerships with local farmers, a strategy they plan to use in Chicago as well.

Farm Burgerwith 4 locations in the Southeast, Farm Burger showcases locally grown, grass-fed, hormone and antibiotic free beef and pork products from partner farms. Each restaurant is partnered with a farm to supply their products. It is a win-win for everyone. They even offer a veggie-quinoa burger for the vegan types. The number 5 with locally grown butternut squash chutney, goat cheese, and wilted chard is among the more interesting offerings.

Elevation Burgertouting the same message as Farm Burger, Elevation Burger’s motto is: Ingredients Matter. With 30 national and 9 international locations, Elevation Burger seems to be hitting their stride. They offer organic, grass-fed, free-range beef as well as a grain-free veggie burger and a grain-based veggie burger. Although they are focused on sustainability, they are not as transparent regarding their supply chain as some of the previously mentioned chains.

So is it truly possible to be local if you are a chain restaurant? Sort of. In the respect that you can be local as much as possible, Tender Greens is doing the most to provide local ingredients. This is due to their slightly different model of allowing the in-store chef creative license to create what he/she wants for the menu. They have set aside the need for consistency among locations and instead focus on showcasing fresh produce in the best light possible. With increase in scale, comes logistical challenges, so it will be interesting to watch how Tender Greens manages to make the leap from a California-based chain to a national one.

Chipotle is recognized and appreciated for consistency across the country and as a trailblazer in the locally sourced movement, and they as well partner with local farms, among them, the infamous Niman Ranch. Chipotle has more challenges than Tender Greens due to sheer size of the operation, but they are nonetheless committed to providing local products where able, while providing a stable menu.

Whether you define it as free-range, organic, or grass-fed, quality is what matters. Local is important but quality wins every time.