For the past decade or so, the industry has been focused on the wants, needs and preferences of Millennials. This hyper-focus on one generation hasn’t been without cause, as Millennials have fundamentally shifted how food is consumed and considered in its cultural role. The industry is ready to move on as Generation Z moves through college and, shortly, becomes the next generation to potentially change the role of food once more.
How do we define Gen Z? There are no definitions accepted by the U.S. Census Bureau, and each research company tends to use its own age range. Pew Research, however, classifies Gen Z as those consumers born from 1997 to the present, or those consumers less than a year old to those 22 years old.
It would be a mistake, however, to believe Gen Z will be nothing more than Millennials 2.0—an expansion or iteration of the changes made by Millennials. Truly understanding how Gen Z will consider and consume food is difficult given that the majority are below the age of 16 and, therefore, hard to effectively survey and study.
Initial data suggests Gen Z will be wholly their own generation and not a subset of another, and as with Millennials, this is a range of consumers who are difficult to pin down as having one homogeneous set of needs and wants.
Gen Z: Flavor Insights
What we’re seeing from Gen Z with regard to purchase drivers should give the industry pause.
Though flavor is the primary driver for food both at retail and in foodservice, Gen Z is less likely to rate its importance as high as other generations. In fact, Gen Z is less likely to place high importance on many issues that have shaped the way foodservice sources and markets what’s on the menu, including: healthy options, fresh, locally sourced, authenticity, customization and high quality.
It is possible Gen Z considers these issues table stakes and takes it for granted they will be available, but it may also indicate a withdrawal from the same level of engagement previously seen with Millennials. Figuring out which is the true pathway for this generation will significantly impact the future of menu and concept development.
In Good Taste
How daring will Gen Z be when it comes to trying new items? According to Datassential, nearly 90 percent like trying new food, but only 35 percent are willing to try something because it sounds interesting, versus 65 percent who will only try it if they believe it will taste good. Does this mean that extreme experimentation for the sake of an experience that can be bragged about on social media will be replaced by more curated menu innovation?
With so many Gen Zs too young to make primary purchasing decisions on their own, it’s difficult to say at this point, but one thing is certainly true: understanding what Gen Z believes will taste good is going to be critical to menu innovation and development.
Just a Teen Thing?
Here is where the big question comes into play: How much of the behavior we’re currently measuring with Gen Z is driven by characteristics and behaviors unique to that generation, and how much is driven more by those specific to adolescence? The truth is, some behaviors are most certainly unique to this demographic, but many are likely more common to the age range, and understanding which is which will be more possible as the generation ages and gains more autonomy in their purchasing behavior.
Gen Z vs. Boomers
There are many different foods and flavors that are appealing to both Gen Z and Baby Boomers (as well as Millennials and Gen X) and can be used as launching pads to create menu items with broad appeal. Ubiquitous fare such as pizza, burgers, pasta, fries, mashed potatoes, grilled chicken and even tacos are all strongly preferred by both Gen Z and Boomers.
The same is true for ubiquitous flavors such as strawberry and chocolate. Where things get a bit trickier is moving beyond ubiquity. In these cases, finding common ground on flavors helps to drive common appeal.
Watermelon is as appealing to both generations as is French vanilla and raspberry. In fact, both generations appear to find common ground on fruit, with pears, melons and tropical fruits all equally appealing.
Nostalgia vs Uniqueness
An interesting flavor case study, and one that was identified early in the focus on Millennials, is red velvet. For Boomers, red velvet is a classic that offers an emotional connection through nostalgia. For younger generations, the appeal lies in uniqueness. Several years ago, operators began to offer red velvet in alternative formats, from doughnuts and ice cream to madeleines and whoopie pies—appealing to different consumers for different reasons.
The farther out from ubiquity an operator strays, the more difficult it may be to find common ground between Gen Z and Boomers, but it’s not impossible. Looking at the trend-forward stage of inception, both Gen Z and Boomers agree on the appeal of shaved ice and brittle, both of which are likely similar to the red velvet phenomenon.
From an operation standpoint, there are common elements that create equally appealing atmospheres for both generations. Despite being “always on” and tech natives, Gen Z is showing a preference for more face-to-face interactions, which is likely more appealing to Boomers than is tech-driven ordering.
Both generations have more time to relax at an operation and are looking for an atmosphere that facilitates relaxing, though Gen Z will need options that help drive devices while Boomers will look for elements that support easy conversation.
The Road Ahead
The path forward is uncertain until we understand the role foodservice will play in the culture of Gen Z. Will the industry enjoy the level of cultural importance it has among Millennials, or will it go back to a more direct competition with retail for share of stomach? What foods and flavors will speak most directly to Gen Z without alienating other generations?
Over the next few years, the answers will become more apparent. Until then, operators should look to common ground by leveraging familiar and appealing formats, but offer broad customization to allow for more individual preferences.
Gen Z will be unique, but unique in a way that still has enough in common with other generations—so operators should be able to create offerings that appeal to all.