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Generation Revelations

Baby boomers want comfort foods, Gen Xers need a place where their young children are welcome, Millennials like to have a place where they can hang with their friends....we are inundated with research and theories about what works with different generations of consumers—and the potential influence each one will have on business. Restaurants can go one of two ways: Figure out a way to be everything to everyone and appeal to the broadest possible audience, or create a menu and environment that speaks to the needs of a single group.

What’s essential for a restaurant operator to know? Read on.

  • Baby Boomers
  • Born: 1945-1964
  • Numbers: 80 million
  • Highest disposable income
  • Want to be pampered

With the youngest of them in their mid-40s, baby boomers have been around the block and are pretty demanding restaurant guests. They make up about a quarter of the U.S. population, but control more than half of all discretionary income and—good news for you—they prefer full-service restaurants. They spend more per person on restaurant meals than other age groups, but they don’t eat out as often as their Gen X and Y counterparts.

“They feel that they are entitled to star treatment,” says Carol Orsborn, co-chair of F-H Boom, a Fleishman-Hillard division that advises clients about marketing to boomers. “If they’re spending a lot of money for a fine dining experience, they’ll notice the quality of the napkin and turn over the plate to see where it’s manufactured.”

They know good service when they get it, and they like being recognized in restaurants and personally taken care of by competent servers. They don’t want to hear loud music that’s not from their era (who does?), and they don’t like young, snobby servers. “Some restaurants just shout ‘we don’t want you,’” Orsborn observes.

Burton’s Grill, which has four units in the Northeast that cater specifically to boomers, understands the role of good service. “Our service is very much relationship-based,” says Kevin Harron, one of Burton’s partners. He thinks older boomers in particular, once they are empty nesters, look to replace some of their family ties with relationships with servers. “So we try to find hospitable people who like to relate to folks and make them feel welcome,” Harron says.

Boomers like updated traditions, such as comfort foods made a bit healthier to address their dietary concerns or old standbys given a fresh look. On Burton’s menu, a basic dish like scallops was transformed into fresh diver scallops over a cream-style fresh corn with applewood-smoked bacon and jalapeños. Harron also believes boomers want to have it their way; accordingly, guests are encouraged to substitute and customize their orders at will.

As health issues have taken center stage for many boomers, the demand for substitions and smaller portions has grown, and many restaurants are responding. At Fatz Café, for instance, a Classic Tuesdays menu offer the chain’s signature Calabash Chicken in smaller portions at reduced prices. And if your guests are trying to lose weight—as a high percentage of boomers may be doing—they want to see nutritional information, according to Mintel, a Chicago research company. They’re more likely than their younger counterparts to favor items like fruits and vegetables, seafood, olive oil, steaks, salads and healthier soups. And they are big fans of dessert, although they might prefer to see it divided into more reasonable portions, à la Seasons 52’s sampler with shotglass portions.

“Boomers remain the perfect foodservice customers,” observes A. Elizabeth Sloan, president of the consulting firm Sloan Trends & Solutions. “They’re not afraid to spend, they believe in the full restaurant experience— from predinner cocktails to dessert and everything in between—and they know what they like.”

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