Bridging generations can be done in many ways, such as designing restaurants with retro or nostalgic themes. Such “emotional tugs” appeal to Baby Boomers, who remember their youth, and younger patrons, who like the modern twist to days gone by. 

This article, “Generational Marketing: Dancing to Different Tunes,” first appeared in the Technomic Information Services publication, Future Food Trends, Issue 2, 2007. – Ed.

Restaurateurs have long known that different parts of their consumer base have different needs and desires—food preferences, ambiance, the marketing methods that speak to them. Restaurateurs are devoting more attention to appealing and marketing to specific market segments, such as different ethnicities and different income levels.

As members of Generation X enter their peak earning years and Millennials become young adults with their own earning power, generational marketing is taking on greater importance.

Restaurateurs see a number of enticing targets:

  • Generation X, now aged in their late 20s to early 40s, number about 50 million, or one in six Americans—and the older members of this generation are near or at their peak earnings and spending years. (Except for the Baby Boomers, exact generational definitions vary, so size estimates are approximate.)

  • The Millennials, now in their teens and 20s and developing their lifetime purchasing habits, represent perhaps another quarter of the population.

  • Together, the generations under age 35 number 140 million people. While the restaurant spending of younger Americans may be lower than that of their seniors, those under age 35 eat out 10% more frequently than the national average.

  •   Baby Boomers, now aged 43 to 61, still represent more than a quarter of the U.S. population and will remain an important market until they die. Boomers and seniors together still control more than half of the nation’s discretionary income. The fastest-growing age group of Americans consists of those 55 and up, including the leading-edge Baby Boomers. Together, the peak and trailing-edge Baby Boomers and the older members of Generation X have the highest per-capita restaurant spending of all the generations.

  • While seniors have traditionally cut back on restaurant spending, we have seen, over time, that each successive age cohort, as it ages into the next decade of life, spends more in restaurants than the previous group did at the same age. The index remains the same, but the whole curve is rising—so the declining end of the curve should begin to flatten, as mature Americans live longer, healthier, more productive lives. That means winning the loyalty of “young seniors” is increasingly important, but picking all these plums requires quite a reach. The different generations have very different lifestyles and values, and restaurateurs are learning that marketing efforts, restaurant environments and service styles that are a “turn-on” to one generation may be a “turn-off” to another.

    Even for small operators, generational positioning and customization can no longer be based on hunches, personal tastes or following the examples of others. Instead, it requires a constant pulse on fast-changing trends, careful demographic and marketing research, and, perhaps, help from experts. PHOTO COURTESY OF

    The Mature Patron: Traditional Values—Sort of

    Though “not acting your age” is in itself a trend, there are characteristics that consumers over the age of 40 have in common. For one thing, they tend to have “traditional values”—they like to dine in, and they value the experience of restaurant dining per se, along with good service and attractive ambiance.

    Restaurants in the emerging “polished casual” sub-sector, with price point and quality level between those of casual dining and fine dining, are a big hit with this audience. Kona Grill is a good example.

    Generally speaking, mature consumers:

  • Have somewhat traditional food tastes, but are also changing their eating patterns. They want more sophisticated, adult-oriented menus.

  • May be interested in “better for me” selections—and as the population ages, these concerns will intensify. Restaurants that appeal to mature customers emphasize “fresh” menu positioning, healthy fare and multiple portion sizes. Eliminating trans fat from the menu, for instance, is more likely to score points with mature adults watching their cholesterol than with males in their teens and 20s.

  • May be adventurous diners who want to experiment with new tastes, including ethnic items and flavors.

  • Are value-conscious. Restaurants can build frequency with coupons, specials and other efforts to appeal to the cost-conscious.

  • Tend to stick to structured mealtimes.

  • Prefer table-service restaurants. Enjoyment is more important than either convenience or menu innovation.

  • Appreciate customized, exceptional service: promptness, accuracy, friendliness, product knowledge and so on. Service issues are the most critical to over-40 customers, and therefore, the most promising point of differentiation for restaurants that hope to cater to them.

  • Seek out a comfortable ambiance that allows them to focus the dining occasion on reconnecting with their companions—spouse, friends or family.

  • Tend to be drawn to an environment featuring natural materials, warm colors, lush fabric, soft lighting and low noise levels. A good example is Ted’s Montana Grill with a rugged, Craftsman-style décor including mahogany paneling, pressed tin ceilings, metal crown moldings and unpolished brass.

    More and more customers of all ages expect technology to be incorporated into their restaurant experiences; Wi-Fi access is considered a basic amenity. PHOTO COURTESY OF

    The Younger Consumer: Restaurants Mean Something DifferentThe Younger Consumer: Restaurants Mean Something Different

    Younger people have spent their whole lives using restaurants as part of their everyday lives—just a normal way of sourcing food. They are the heaviest users of takeout, but they also use restaurants as “the third place”—comfortable locations away from home, work or school, where they can hang out, be with their friends, study or work on their laptops. Generally speaking, younger consumers:

  • Are heavy users of chain restaurants, particularly limited-service restaurants. For those born after 1980, about 25% of restaurant visits are to burger franchises, followed by pizza restaurants at 12%. Many quick-casual restaurants, offering better-than-LSR [limited service restaurant] food and ambiance at a just-above-LSR price point, are particular favorites of younger consumers.

  • Are less likely to eat traditional meals at traditional hours and more likely to snack all day. The increased emphasis on snack occasions and daypart expansion has many ramifications, but the most relevant here is the number of chains that are inaugurating or expanding late-night business, which primarily attracts the young. Taco Bell’s “Fourthmeal” promotion is the top example. Wendy’s has also been a pioneer in staking out the late-night daypart.

  • Expect technology to be incorporated into their restaurant experiences; Wi-Fi access is a basic amenity.

  • Are drawn to décor featuring a modern, minimalist, urban vibe.

  • Want an “experience” from their restaurant occasions.

  • Are comfortable with a wide range of spice notes and ethnic foods. Younger generations, including Generation X and the Millennials, are the most multicultural Americans in our nation’s history, so newer, bolder, more exotic flavor profiles (such as Hardee’s Jalapeño Thickburger) have growing appeal both to specific ethnic groups and the generational cohort.

  • Are tech-savvy and expect a lot of technology in their restaurant experiences.

    Some restaurants take advantage of younger generations’ mania for text messaging by sending coupons and instant deals to customers who have signed up for the service. Burger King, among others, advertises the availability of information from its website for mobile-phone access—connecting to the young on their own terms. Companies are also enhancing their websites to be more information-rich, interactive and hip, with features such as games, animation and downloadable screen-savers. For the generation that loves an “in” joke, some chains have even created tongue-in-cheek “stealth” websites—Burger King’s infamous “subservient chicken” or the satirical McDonald’s “Save the McRib” campaign.

    “Our Kind of Place”

  • Younger generations are also responding to a new attention to interior aesthetics, particularly in LSR settings. One key trend is “third place” positioning—creating a living-room-like environment where young customers can hang out either with their friends or with their laptops. A prototype Taco Bell in Dallas, for instance, offers comfortable chairs, soft colors and mood lighting. A new McDonald’s prototype in Saratoga Springs, Utah, features a sage-green color palette, upholstered booths, a stone fireplace and lounge chairs.

  • Conversely, some restaurants signal “high-energy” positioning with accents like neon, metal and bright, colorful elements with color and design trends following fashion trends. Chipotle units are decorated in a spare industrial design that includes birch plywood, corrugated steel, wire mesh, pigmented concrete, stainless steel and leather.

  • Digital video menu boards punch up the “down” time customers spend waiting in line at the counter or drive-thru. Stunning, dynamic images of menu items and promotions help pass the time, are aesthetically pleasing and are a superb sales tool for restaurants. (And, any effort that upgrades the takeout experience selectively draws younger customers, just because they are the heaviest take-out users.)

  • Younger adults respond to entertainment-focused concepts—from game-themed concepts such as Dave & Buster’s and Game Works, to performance-oriented hybrids such as House of Blues. The extreme example is Nolan Bushnell’s uWink Bistro concept, which enhances the restaurant experience with an interactive, social entertainment setting; customers order food via a touch-screen, which also allows access to games and media. When they go grocery shopping, young adults are big fans of markets such as upscale natural-foods leader Whole Foods—whose luscious look and interactive experiences have led it to be dubbed “retail-tainment.”

    How Restaurants Bridge Generations

    As we have seen, catering to these different generational mindsets requires different strategies. Yet, some practices signal welcome to multiple generations:

  • Offering a variety of portion sizes. Mature patrons appreciate these options, because their appetites may no longer be as hearty; because they are trying to eat more healthily; because they like the lower prices; or just because they are feeling like experimenting at small risk. Younger consumers are attracted to the same alternatives, because they tend to snack and graze at odd hours rather than eating “square meals” at traditional times, or because they like to share a variety of menu items with their dining companions. One example: T.G.I. Friday’s recently debuted “Right Portion, Right Price,” featuring 10 items with portion sizes reduced by 30% at reduced prices for both lunch and dinner.

  • Offering menu options for both traditionalists and adventurous diners. At The Cheesecake Factory, for instance, one diner may order fish and chips, while a companion may go for Shrimp Scampi with Steak Diane.

  • Increasing emphasis on occasion-based marketing and staff training. Waitstaff are trained to notice both the party composition and age groups at each table, assess the nature of the occasion and adjust their service style to match.

  • Tailoring advertising and marketing efforts to depict the restaurant’s experience and welcome specific clienteles. Promotional materials that show festive, adults-only groups (such as those from Olive Garden or Romano’s Macaroni Grill) give a clue that the restaurant is adult-oriented, whereas those that depict family groups (at McDonald’s or Denny’s, for instance) signal a family-friendly experience.

  • Focusing on customer relationship management techniques such as customized e-mail messages and offers for regular patrons.

  • Changing background music—decibel level and tempo—to appeal to different demographics at different times of day.

  • Designing restaurants that provide an emotional tug for multiple generations. Restaurants with nostalgia/retro restaurant themes, such as Sonic Drive-Ins, have particular resonance; Baby Boomers can remember their youth, and younger patrons get their “eatertainment” from the modern twist on a restaurant design from days gone by.