Foodservice designers have it tough these days. Not only have they had to cater to the largest group of restaurant diners ever, Baby Boomers, they now need to design for the next, even larger generations of customers: Millennials and the up-and-coming group of diners, Gen Zers (21 years old and younger).
It's a diverse landscape to say the least. The Millennial generation alone spans adults aged 22 to 37, and this group includes both recent college grads and seasoned professionals. Though both Millennials and Gen Zers come from the digital age, meaning most have had computers all their lives, the two age groups are at very different places socially, financially and emotionally. Top that off with an aging generation, full of more diverse wants and needs, and you have a whole bucket of fun times.
Still, a number of dining trends span all three generations, according to Technomic's 2014 Generational Consumer Trend Report. Everyone seems to want high-quality taste and a wider array of perceived healthy, more wholesome options as well as convenience, customization and quality customer service.
"We're not really designing for generations as much as we're designing for the way most people want to eat now," says Mark Freeman, senior manager of global employee services at Microsoft.
The days of three square meals are over. Food quality simply has to be there. And for many consumers, the dining experience is also as important as the food. Let's break it down by the ages.
Generation Z makes up 12 percent of the total population, according to Technomic. Many of its members do not know what life was like before the Internet, making it the first truly digital generation, according to Sara Monnette, senior director, consumer insights and innovation, at Technomic. Generation Z is also the most ethnically diverse group surveyed, and its members are more likely to be students, according to U.S. Census data.
When choosing a restaurant, Gen Zers place the highest importance on low prices, overall value and convenience. Of all the generations, Gen Zers place the highest priority on fast service, according to Technomic's latest report. College-aged Gen Zers also eat at all times of the day — and night. And they're very, very specific about what they want.
"It's important to have a dining and equipment model that gives you a lot more flexibility to change out the menu and get students in and out faster," says Carolyn Ruck, principal of Ruck-Shockey Associates.
Ruck should know. Not only has she designed many college and university foodservice serveries, she also has twin boys in college. Her son Joe, a first-year hospitality student at the University of Denver recently approached the school's foodservice director about a series of disappointing experiences in the cafeteria. The breaking point came when Joe Ruck came back late from a long day of classes and project meetings only to find a limited selection of food in the half-open servery. After Ruck settled on a simple cheeseburger, a staff member said he was out of cheese and refused to add a slice from the back. Ruck had to take the cheese from the salad bar; and the burger was cold, bland and poor quality.
"My age group wants the highest-quality food made as natural as possible," says Joe Ruck, who lost 80 pounds just by "cleaning up" his diet with more wholesome food. That also means GMO-free, seasonal fruits and vegetables from local, sustainable and organic sources. No more canned peaches. No more processed food.
"If you give us a bowl of fresh fruit or Oreos, most of us pick the fruit," says Joe Ruck. "The sun is shining 300 days out of the year, and we want to feel great and not put bad stuff in our bodies."
Ira Simon, director of foodservice for Sodexo, the management company for the University of Denver, quickly responded to Joe Ruck's complaints. In fact, he appreciated the feedback so much that he appointed Joe Ruck as a school foodservice consultant; now Ruck basically serves as an ambassador for the students, with weekly updates and regular meetings about how to improve the food.
"We encourage all our students to get to know the manager at our locations and speak up about what they want, especially those with special diets, and Joe has become a great, vocal advocate for our students," says Simon, a 38-year veteran of campus foodservice.
Since then, Simon has built up the salad bar to include extra proteins like hard-boiled eggs and beans, a wider variety of cut vegetables, as well as a few pre-made salads like mixed greens with dried cranberries and classic Caesar. Sodexo also now offers more local food options, such as a burger made from local Colorado-raised, antibiotic- and hormone-free, grass-fed meat. The lines for that are out the door.
In addition, Sodexo stepped up its vegan and vegetarian options to include items like sweet-and-sour stir-fried tofu, eggplant parm, and roasted veggies and hummus, all of which Joe Ruck says are popular. Gluten-free items, pizza included, are clearly marked. Even the beverages are better — from filtered water flavored with fresh lemon and cucumber slices to smoothies and a soy milk station.
In the servery, says Simon, "instead of being so institutional, we're moving toward smaller presentations and more to-go containers and merchandising." He adds, "It's more about the fresh appearance and presentation."
Students also like to see the culinary team prepare their food. Simon introduced build-your-own omelet and stir-fry stations to accommodate those needs, and he lowered the barriers between the students and the cooks so they can communicate. Stepping up customer service was an important part too: Sodexo now offers $50 gift cards to employees who get to know the most customers.
When it comes to dining preferences, socialization is huge among Gen Zers, according to Technomic. The University of Denver intentionally leaves tables in two- and four-top setups that students can easily move to accommodate larger groups.
Gen Zers also want to see their foodservice operators demonstrate environmental and
social awareness. As such, Sodexo remains committed to composting and has switched to compostable napkins and containers to cut down on waste.
Foodservice designers take note: Gen Zers don't eat three square meals a day like their parents. Many eat lighter meals throughout the day and night. Online and call-ahead ordering also interest most Gen Zers, according to Technomic.
As a result, many college and university foodservice directors have extended the hours of their dining halls. Or they've expanded their retail and coffee shop hours and food offerings to include more fresh, to-go food rather than just packaged, processed snacks and sweets. In some instances, students tracking their calories, sugar, carbs and other nutrients can scan menu items to access nutritional information.
"The need for more late-night options has been a more recent revelation for us," says Simon. A couple of years ago he expanded the University of Denver's north dining hall hours and the retail location — open until 10:30 p.m. — on the central campus to include more food offerings.
From a foodservice designer's view, this introduces a huge opportunity to introduce equipment with a smaller footprint, like rapid-cook ovens for quick toasted sandwiches, better refrigeration for pre-made salads or even a small salad bar station. "The challenge is the cost factor," says Carolyn Ruck. "If you keep more stations open late at night, then you have to balance that against food and labor costs."
And even if the equipment's more flexible, it still has to last 30 years, she says. Flattops, more prep space and a lot of plug-and-play are key.
Countless studies show Millennials do — and will continue to — account for the largest, most frequent group of diners, perhaps ever. As the employment picture for this demographic continues to improve, Millennials are working and spending their money at restaurants and other foodservice outlets.
According to Technomic, 41 percent of Millennials report purchasing food away from home at least twice a week, which is more than Gen Xers at 38 percent and Baby Boomers at 37 percent. And a larger proportion of Millennials do so from full-service restaurants, where they enjoy ambiance, craft cocktails and high-quality food.
Microsoft's Freeman knows this. He caters to a group that includes both recent college grads and Gen Xers who are in management positions and have families, all of whom put more emphasis on both the food and ambiance.
In fact, says Monnette, restaurants tend to be very social places, especially for Millennials. "They look to restaurants to provide a great experience and atmosphere, not just a great meal." Communal, comfortable seating, upbeat music and contemporary decor are important to this group.
"We have been remodeling our cafés for the last three years to include more cooking in front of the customers and even in the dining areas," says Freeman. "The days of having a servery with stations and a cashier are over." Instead, Freeman works with his team to create more of a "grazing atmosphere" and has rid the kitchen of all its walls so diners can see what's happening.
"Another major shift for us is the use of more technology," says Freeman. Microsoft has transitioned to cashier-less kiosks where customers can quickly order and pay using cards and a touch screen. After a customer places an order, the screen displays the queue using yellow indicators and green when the order is complete. "This allows customers to roam around, get their beverage and silverware and come back in line without standing there the entire time."
Microsoft employees also have the option of ordering online from their desks or smartphones and going directly to the appropriate stations to pick up their food. Freeman notes both younger- and older- generation diners prefer this.
Millennials want fresh, locally sourced and natural foods and are more likely to purchase antibiotic-free, free-range and organic items, according to Technomic. They also want more variety — including wholesome and creative options.
"A couple years ago we went back to complete scratch cooking," says Freeman. Now soups, sauces, breads and salad dressings served in Microsoft's corporate dining facilities are made from scratch. "There is an ingredient revolution going on — people are concerned and want to know where their food came from and how it was made."
In addition to sourcing local, seasonal food, Microsoft even built aeroponic towers into three of its cafés. These vertical gardens, which can grow lettuce, tomatoes and other small vegetables, supplement some of the produce Microsoft serves for its 40,000 meals a day. They're conversation pieces, for sure: Freeman often sees people take selfies in front of the gardens in true Millennial fashion.
At Amazon, where there is a mixture of employees in their 20s and 30s, value is especially important, but so is taste. "With 30 food trucks parked out our doors, we have to beat everyone with flavor, not just convenience and variety," says Brian Wilbur, manager at Bon Appetit Management Company, which operates the foodservice program there and at Google and Intel.
Hiring well-trained chefs helps, as does purchasing as much food as possible from local farms and artisan producers to feed roughly 5,000 customers a day at 5 cafés and 5 espresso bars. And to maintain both authenticity and flexibility, Amazon uses wood-burning ovens for flatbreads and pizzas as well as rotisseries and tandoor ovens, all of which also add entertaining appeal.
This group of aging Boomers has truly become a sleeper market for many designers, says Connie Dickson, principal at Robert Rippe & Associates.
"We're designing for the modern senior and Baby Boomer living, not the Greatest Generation anymore," Dickson says, describing the latter generation as the post-World War II group. "The standard in terms of foodservice for most senior living facilities was a formal dining room, and the residents got one meal per day as part of their plan. Dinner was a dressing-up occasion — some facilities even required jackets for men, and you often saw a hot food line and a salad bar."
Those days are just about over.
With such a large group of seniors over age 65, needs vary greatly from one person or couple to the next. Baby Boomers, known for their spunk and love of work and activity, show no signs of aging, even if they technically are. "Boomers care more about the actual service they receive than elements like decor. For casual dining restaurants, 96 percent of Boomers say friendly service is important, and just 50 percent of Boomers feel decor is important," says Technomic's Monnette.
The answer to this desire for more restaurant-style, casual and friendly dining, Dickson explains, has been CCRCs: continuation of care retirement communities. These mixed development properties pair independent-living retirement communities with residences for higher levels of care, including apartments with in-home nurses.
Seniors can start off in the retirement community area, but if their health declines, they can transition to the areas offering more assisted living. This setup also works well for couples where one senior might need more healthcare than the other. When it comes to the foodservice programs for these properties, flexibility and diversity are the name of the game. "We're seeing CCRCs' kitchens become almost like a hotel kitchen that can support multiple venues, especially in new construction projects," says Dickson.
In addition, dining rooms tend to be more casual, and the menu often sticks to traditional comfort food or resembles an upscale restaurant with an open kitchen. "The equipment hasn't changed as much, but we are seeing a lot more interest in bringing it out front," says Dickson, who adds that there's less of a buffet and more traditional table service.
There might also be a separate café for a casual breakfast and lunch setting. In some cases, that casual café might remain open for dinner, but then there will be another higher-end option too. Foodservice areas also need to cater to an increased number of special events and parties for birthdays, receptions and more, says Dickson.
Meal plans continue to change too. "We're moving away from one meal per day to declining balance cards tracked with POS systems," says Dickson. "Historically, breakfast and lunch were smaller meals, and dinner was the main event, but now we're seeing much greater participation at earlier meals in the day than previously."
Senior living facilities also have a tough crowd — the children (many Gen Xers) who are moving their parents into these places. The food quality, variety and convenience factor simply have to be there.