Flavor Trends, Strategies and Solutions for Menu Development

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Changing of the Culinary Guard

Millennial diners actively seek out intriguing, globally inspired foods — like these pork tacos — that offer exciting flavor experiences. Photo courtesy of national pork board. The Millennials are here, and they’re ready for new and adventuresome flavor experiences

By Phil Daniels & Mindy Armstrong

The last 30-plus years have largely been spent catering to the culinary whims of Baby Boomers. We’ve been tracking what they like and creating new products, menu items and even whole restaurant concepts around their flavor and dining preferences. And as their taste buds began to age, we bumped up the intensity so that they could continue experiencing the full flavor punch they once knew.

But times are changing, and so is the culinary terrain, as Boomers reach retirement age and begin to focus on new priorities. As their eating habits evolve, they will represent a new and different target for foodservice operators. And with this, a new darling of foodservice will emerge: the Millennial generation.

Millennials, once defined as the Y-Generation and spanning in ages from mid-teens to early thirties, will soon replace Baby Boomers as the critical target for the foodservice industry. This generation was born between 1977  and 1995, and this group — over 80 million strong — is larger than the Baby Boomers and three times the size of Generation X. In total, they make up roughly 25 percent of the U.S. population. Looking ahead to satisfy Millennials’ eating idiosyncrasies is a must if we expect to be successful in harnessing the full potential of foodservice in the future.

First, let’s define the mindset: Millennials are individualistic, optimistic and thrive on technology, which gives them a unique knowledge base when it comes to decision-making. This generation tends to be comfortable with their parents, and routinely cites the friendly, supportive relationship they share with them. Friends are considered part of the family and greatly influence daily decisions regarding meal and snack occasions.

It is also apparent that this group is on a different life-plan trajectory. Whereas a traditional lifestyle path might include an education, a career, marriage, home-ownership and children — often in that order, Millennials exhibit more fluidity in these life choices, with a more nimble approach to education and career choices, and often postpone major steps like marriage, children and home-ownership.

Millennials value flexibility in their lives, therefore companies and brands that reflect inflexibility are at a disadvantage in appealing to this generation. For the foodservice industry, there has been one massive trend that has indicated the relevance of this notion more than any other: food trucks. The fluidity and flexibility of this business model, as well as the willingness to adapt to the needs of their customer base, catapulted the movement. And who was sitting at the wheel? A Millennial.

This generation eats in restaurants far more often than non-Millennials (3.4 times per week versus 2.8 times per week) and as a result, are spending more than previous generations. This is a group of “open” diners, meaning they gravitate toward different segments according to their immediate needs: fast casual for convenience or modern upscale for special occasions.

For the Millennial, eating out is a necessary social experience. Food is not just fuel to this group; dining is an occasion that should be shared. Millennials dine out often with friends, co-workers and classmates, and prefer this over eating alone or with family. This is also a generation full of snackers who often grab sustenance from restaurants between meals; their snacking habits will likely remain part of their lifestyle as they age.

Meals that are quick, customizable and communicate a sense of “authenticity,” like Panera Bread’s Napa Almond Chicken Salad Sandwich, are a big hit among Millennials. Photo courtesy of california table grape commission. QUICK & CUSTOMIZABLE
Fast food is the primary restaurant format of choice for Millennials, as it is for most Americans. But this generation has different criteria for selecting a restaurant. Millennials are much more drawn to unique eateries that offer interesting or globally inspired foods as compared to the predictable go-to restaurants Baby Boomers gravitate toward.

This group has an inherent sense of command and control. They were introduced to “just for me” products early on. And they do not know of a marketplace that doesn’t offer a wide variety of choices and opportunities for customization. But they continue to expect more from our industry, and as they mature and express what earns their business, meeting their demands becomes more complex.

For example, some of this generation’s preferred dining establishments range from customizable bakery cafes like Panera Bread to quality-based cult favorites like Five Guys, as well as local independents, which provide community interaction.

Beyond these preferences, we know that younger consumers as a whole are more aware of and open to global flavors. But ethnic foods are just part of the equation. Global foods, outside of a few cuisines, ingredients and spices, are no longer “exotic” to this group. Mexican, Chinese and Italian, once the big three, have become everyday fare, and, in many of these consumers’ minds, are just as American as a cheeseburger. For Millennials, Thai is on the weekly takeout menu, a dumpling is a snack and Americanized Indian food is comforting, not foreign. The exploration and adventure of trying new things is appealing. The microcosms, details and story of a cuisine or flavor drive the interest.

For instance, stepping beyond the typical curry and dal within Indian cuisine, regional versions with fresh flavors and aromas are emerging. Some of the best and brightest Indian food can be found at Chutney Joe’s Indian Diner in Chicago, Roti Grill in Dallas and Bombay Bowl in Denver — all serving food with great interest and flavor impact, in approachable concept and menu-item formats.

The recent opening of Asian Box in Palo Alto, Calif., is another indicator of the shift in consumer demand and seems to play right into the desires of the Millennial audience. Blending “Western locavore cuisine” with the colorful, flavorful foods found throughout Southeast Asia, the growth concept’s goal is to offer guests an authentic dining experience that is fun, exciting, healthy and “dtam sang,” or made to order. Build-your-own “box” menu items start at $7.25. In addition, the concept is fully gluten free and green, using compostable materials and energy-efficient practices.

Operators like Asian Box — offering interesting, global, eco-sensitive and value-priced fare — are poised to meet the diverse dining demands of the coming years.

The opportunity — and challenge — for foodservice operators is how to satisfy this demographic’s flavor needs, now and in the future. Understanding key characteristics can provide clues as to how this generation might respond favorably to culinary and marketing strategies.

First, don’t assume they’re all the same. This is a demographic that takes pride in individualism and a “just-for-me” mindset. Second, this generation enjoys cooking and experimenting with food in general. Sixty-four percent say they love to cook and enjoy being creative in the kitchen (far more than the 52 percent of non-Millennials who do.) Among Millennial men who are the primary grocery shopper for their household,

67 percent consider themselves expert or creative cooks. But this is balanced by this generation’s on-the-go lifestyle — 39 percent prefer picking up quick meals versus cooking. (Source: “American Millennials: Deciphering the Enigma Generation,” a 2011 joint report from Barkley, Service Management Group and The Boston Consulting Group.)

In addition, these consumers are more engaged and seek more meaning from their experiences. And they have found that they can get these experiences within their budget parameters. This has redefined value and made “quality value” in particular a key driver. For example, Chipotle, Pei Wei and Wendy’s, as well as many other emerging chains, have based their message on the idea of “quality, authenticity and portion for a value.” The “value” may be offered at different price points but the idea is the same. It delivers the desired experience at a value cost.

From a flavor and culinary standpoint, the key word is “authentic.” The cuisine is less important — it could be Thai, Indian or Peruvian, so long as it is perceived as “real” and still satisfies that need for value. The Millennials have high expectations regarding what quality and authenticity should taste like. “Housemade” has become even more important, while terms like “fresh” and “artisan” are becoming overused and will soon cross over into the expected, especially as QSR giants continue to use these descriptors on their menu-boards.

T.G.I. Friday’s “Tapa-tizer” of Japanese Hibachi Skewers has the flavor and form that appeal to a new generation. Photo courtesy of T.G.I. Friday’s. With more mindful sourcing and quickly prepared, customizable meals at a reasonable price, Chipotle and its new Southeast Asian concept ShopHouse have introduced a model that is particularly appealing to Millennials. This fast, fresh format is here to stay and will likely expand as more concepts and cuisines enter into the market. As the segment becomes more saturated, this generation will seek out authenticity above all else. And just as Millennials are constantly evolving themselves, globally-focused restaurant concepts will begin to evolve into more micro-regional cuisines to meet the need for authentic experiences.

These experiences are not specific to just food either. Millennials are likely to energize the beverage market in the coming years. This will be an important menu focus in the future, especially as this generation will make up over 40 percent of the country’s adult population over the next 10 years. Items like novel, hand-crafted sodas have been a trend this year and will likely encourage more housemade liquors to emerge. To appeal to Millennials’ adventuresome palate, we’ll continue to see an emergence of new taste profiles, like sour — such as the “drinking vinegars” featured at Pok Pok in Portland, Ore.

According to Technomic, members of the Millennial generation are more likely than others to equate higher-priced adult beverages with better quality. These consumers are also interested in locally produced beverages to help boost their local economy. Millennials prefer beer, especially microbrews and seasonal specialties, but, like previous generations, are apt to shift more to wine and spirits as they age. They are also more likely than older adults to drink adult beverages with meals, both at home and at restaurants.

In summary, the drivers of this generation are emotional. Atmosphere, experience, authentic, real, community and local are all cues with meaning to Millennials.

However, at the heart of it all remains one key component and a significant strategy for operators: flavor. There is a whole world of foods and flavors that American restaurant operators have yet to tap into. Look to the most popular global items coming out of food trucks, ethnic markets and independent restaurants. Food-savvy Millennials are seeking out new flavor territories and food experiences, and they’re willing and eager to follow the lead of forward-thinking foodservice operators and chefs who can guide them on this adventurous and exciting culinary journey.


Phil Daniels is Division President of the Springfield, Mo.-based Marlin Network, overseeing three business units: Marlin Network Consulting Group, Deep and FoodIQ; pdaniels@deepgroup.com.


Mindy Armstrong is Insights and Account Manager at FoodIQ, a Marlin Network agency and culinary consulting firm; marmstrong@foodiq.net.


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