By Leon Stafford
Most consumers will tell you they prefer fresh, tasty, healthy food over processed, greasy, assembly line fare. Millennials, though, may be the first generation to back that up with their wallets.
Fast-food operators say they are getting increasing pressure from the demographic - generally defined as 18 to 34 year olds - to boost the quality of menu items or risk losing millennials. At stake is more than $1 trillion in spending by the group to the fast-casual category, which includes chains such as Chipotle Mexican Grill or Atlanta’s Moe’s Southwest Grill.
The magazine noted that, despite higher prices, fast-casual alternatives such as Firehouse Subs and Five Guys Burgers and Fries were gaining in popularity because quality increasingly matters more to millennials than the convenience that has been fast-food’s advantage for decades.
“Millennials have a renewed fascination with food,” said David Farmer, vice president for product strategy and development for Atlanta-based Chick-fil-A. “They grew up on food television and are more knowledgeable about ingredients. And social media has put a lot of attention on quality and customization.”
Esther Yi, 25, counts herself among that group. Yi, a business affairs coordinator at Georgia State University, is a foodie who thinks knowledge of the subject has been assimilated into the every day lives of millennials. She thinks that leads them to be more interested in menu innovation, service and an expectation that food be “fresh” and sourced as locally as possible.
And because of their Internet savviness, food is a social experience for millennials, who post dinner pictures to websites or critique menu items in reviews.
“I don’t go to a place unless I ‘Yelp’ it,” Yi said.
Working in fast-food’s favor is the economic struggles of millennials. Though their economic clout is great because of their sheer number, they are faring worse financially than their parents - a reverse of typical monetary trends in America in which each successive generation does better than the last.
In fact, millennials’ economic struggles have been blamed in part for the market share losses of more moderately priced sit-down chains such as Olive Garden, Red Lobster and Ruby Tuesday, experts said.
But fast-food companies have struggled with the group because they are boxed into a menu that has to entice the broadest customer audience possible. And the more items they add to menus to grab more market share, the more crowded and confused their menus become.
“Most marketing leaders will tell you to figure out who you are and be true to yourself,” said Karen Bremer, executive director of the Georgia Restaurant Association.
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