Millennials are Shaping the Foodservice Industry in Unexpected Ways


Not sure what a hashtag is? Ever tried your hand at tweeting? If not, chances are you’re out of touch with millennials, today’s youngest and most powerful consumer.

According to Statistics Canada, 9.5 million millennials were born between 1981 and 2000. Considering this demographic now constitutes nearly one third of Canada’s population, their impact on multiple industries cannot be underestimated. An even more impactful statistic reveals that since 2014, millennials represent 37 per cent of Canada’s
overall workforce, outnumbering gen-xers and baby boomers.

Robert Carter, executive director, Foodservice Canada for NPD Group, says restaurants, in particular, have experienced a big increase in millennial traffic. “Millennials are the only source of growth within the foodservice industry,” explains Carter. “Traffic remained flat with the exception of this 18 to 34-year-old cohort, where restaurant visits increased by two per cent compared to the previous year.” As of 2015, the demographic accounted for 28 per cent of total restaurant traffic.

With so much riding on millennial dollars, it’s essential that operators understand the wants and needs of this segment. The same-old means of advertising, marketing and even decorating one’s restaurant won’t interest the seemingly fickle millennial. “We find they’re not as brand loyal as previous cohorts,” says Carter.

Beth Pollock, communications specialist at Restaurants Canada, insists that even menu development has felt the impact of shifting demographics. “This generation wants to always see new things on the menu and a lot of new flavours from diverse cultures,” she says. “But they also want to know where their food is coming from, how it’s being raised. They’re incredibly interested in the story about the food itself.”

Ever seen a “no-substitutions” inscription inside a menu? That’s very anti-millennial, according to Pollock. “Catering to this demographic means embracing the idea of customization,” she says. “Menus that allow you to build your own burger or noodle bowl
or pizza are going to succeed more with younger customers.”

Monique Duqette, national practice lead, Customer Intelligence at Toronto-based SAS Canada, agrees about the importance of developing a menu that’s perfectly curated to guests. “The foodservice industry needs to leverage critical data from their customer base,” explains Duqette. By surveying your local customers, the framework of a one-size-fits-all menu across a chain can be dispensed with. “Operators need to really look at the locality of the restaurant and vary their menu in order to service its specific customers.”

Drew Voegeli, owner of Relish, a gourmet burger establishment in Halifax, says he gets what young people are searching for. After all, he is a millennial himself. “We use as many local ingredients as possible and this changes seasonally,” says Voegeli.

Voegeli also understands the importance of social media for this demographic. The restaurant not only posts daily on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, but also regularly to its Youtube channel, Vine, Instagram and Pineterest. “We just know our demographic. It’s the best way to communicate that day’s specials or what’s on sale,” he says.

Dennis Ellsworth, general manager of Terre Rouge in Charlottetown, says his millennial guests have been coming in droves ever since he became a social-media convert. “When I was hired, we were catering to baby boomers,” explains Ellsworth. “The social media aspect was basically zero. The accounts were set up, but they weren’t really using them.” Now that Terre Rouge posts its daily specials, millennial diner traffic has increased by almost 50 per cent.

Even A&W Canada has set its sights on the millennial generation. Paul Hollands, A&W’s chairman and CEO, says the company made a strategic decision four years ago to rebrand itself. “We decided to narrow in on our high-quality food,” explains Hollands. “For example, our chickens and beef raised without antibiotics. That’s what this guest is really interested in.”

The company has also developed special incentives for millennial franchisors. Instead of the previous $400,000 required to open an A&W unit, the company has reduced its fee to $125,000. “We’ve also designed training programs to service a younger demographic who may not have operated a business before,” says Hollands. “We have a special operations team that solely works with millennial operators, especially those in key urban areas like Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver.” Hollands says A&W is expecting to launch approximately 25 millennial-run operations within the next five years — mostly in urban centres.

So how will millennials, so often referred to as “coddled,” manage a business? “As well as the previous generation,” says Pollock. “They work just as hard, they just want to be engaged differently, with more flexibility of schedule, for example.” Pollock also has a secret that might serve operators well. Start texting. “Trust me. For this generation, it’s all about the text,” she says.

Volume 49, Number 1

Written By: Jennifer Febbraro


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