Transform with Gen Z

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Three cheerful young friends enjoying each other's company in cafe. Happy and positive emotions.

They are in the prime of their youth right now, but Generation Z already has impressive power over the foodservice industry. According to The NPD Group, this collective of 5- to 22-year-old Americans, which accounts for 27 percent of the population, visited restaurants 14.6 billion times in 2018 and represents a quarter of all foodservice traffic.1

Most Gen Zers are still in school, but eating habits and tastes are beginning to emerge. As you plan your operation’s path forward, consider several things already revealed about this rising consumer force—and start building the future with them.

Driven by Ethnicity

As the most culturally diverse generation, only slightly more than half (52 percent) of Gen Z Americans are white; a quarter are Hispanic. There are also more Asians in this demographic than in any other.2

Undoubtedly, this generation recognizes dish, flavor and ingredient authenticity. Look for spice blends and sauces to give chicken and other proteins a global flair. A blackened jerk chicken sandwich, for example, brings Jamaican heat to the handheld staple. Or consider following the lead of Cleveland’s Melt Bar and Grilled, whose varied line of mac and cheese dishes includes a Hungarian-inspired Chicken Paprikash option with grilled chicken, sautéed onions, paprikash sauce, sour cream and scallions.

Portability Matters

Portable or handheld food options became important to previous generations (particularly breakfast-on-the-go eaters) as the drive-thru became increasingly popular. But portability is driven by different motivators for Gen Z.

Like Millennials, Gen Zers are snackers. In fact, 74 percent of them often snack between meals, compared to 66 percent of Millennials.3 They also tend to choose snacks over meals, with 44 percent frequently skipping breakfast, 32 percent skipping lunch and 25 percent skipping dinner.4 If you’re a casual, family or fine-dining operation, you could easily rename the appetizer section “Snacks” and load it up with handheld options that can be eaten on the go.

Gen Z’s habit of multitasking also has contributed to the rise of portability in foodservice. Indeed, three in 10 Gen Zers have said they have no choice but to eat meals on the run.5 Even when they’re in the confined space of a school, they tend to be active on their phone, tablet or computer with one hand while eating with the other.6

Operators are responding by expanding their menus to include more bowl meals, which are easy to hold, and repurposing entrees as wraps, paninis and finger foods. Panda Express, for example, recently introduced Sichuan Hot Chicken, a spicy handheld fried chicken dish comprised of spicy five-inch long chicken strips and developed with portability in mind.7

Authenticity Resonates

While authentic flavor is important to Gen Z, authentic ingredient sourcing is equally important. Millennials were the first to demand clean, fresh and environmentally friendly food en masse, but the newer generation more pointedly seeks honesty in the brand experience, which is only visible through transparency. And because Gen Z prefer to engage with brands through their phones, it’s reasonable to assume that they spend some of that time confirming alignment with their ideals through its website or app.8

In many cases, their clean (organic, non-GMO, hormone- and antibiotic-free) food-sourcing ideals are developed and reinforced in school. Universities are increasingly developing school farms and growing crops on their roofs, making the food hyperlocal and visible.6

Whatever your clean sourcing criteria is, promote it prominently on your website, as Chicago’s Honey Butter Fried Chicken has done. In addition to clearly stating the company’s core values, the site details its efforts to preserve the environment and treat its employees fairly by offering benefits (including health insurance) and paying fair wages.

Gen Z’s environmental sustainability ethos also could drive the current plant-based protein trend far into the future. Currently, the percentage of Gen Zers who eat plant-based meals almost doubles from junior high to high school graduation.9

Operators, such as Hardee’s, are responding by experimenting with plant-based proteins. The company recently became the latest quick service chain to partner with Beyond Meat to test plant-based protein options for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The company intentionally chose two college towns as their test markets to target receptive Gen Z consumers.10

Winning Gen Z’s business will require a careful evaluation of your menu and overall operations. Embrace bold and global flavors, portable and snack options, and authentic and transparent sourcing practices—then promote these choices in channels where Gen Z hangs out (namely, social media).11 Strategic efforts such as these will keep your business relevant to them far into the future.

Content courtesy of Perdue Foodservice


1“Gen Zs Are Getting Older and Making Their Mark on Restaurants and Eating Trends,” The NPD Group, Feb. 21, 2019

2“Early Benchmarks Show ‘Post-Millennials’ on Track to Be Most Diverse, Best-Educated Generation Yet,” Pew Research Center, Nov. 15, 2018

3“Gen Z Adults Seek Foods Fitting Their Busy, Yet Health Conscious Lifestyles,” Packaged Facts, Feb. 11, 2019

4“Technomic’s Consumer 4Sight Group Takes a Deep Dive Into Gen Z Foodservice Usage Patterns,” Technomic, Nov. 5, 2015

52018 Generational Consumer Trend Report, Technomic, July 2018

6Gingerella, Benita, “What Gen Z Wants to Eat,” Foodservice Director, Oct. 24, 2018

7Luna, Nancy, “Hotter Than Kung Pao Chicken? Panda Express’ New Offer Turns Up the Heat,” Nation’s Restaurant News, July 12, 2019

8Glazer, Fern, “Gen Z Key to Traffic Growth as Older Diners Cut Back,” Nation’s Restaurant News, Sept. 5, 2019

9Demeritt, Laurie, “Enter Gen Z: The New Disruptors of Food Culture,”, Sept. 19, 2018

10“Hardee’s to Test Beyond Meat at Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner,” QSR magazine, Oct. 9, 2019

11Williams, Robert, “Study: Gen Z Prefers Social Media as Top Influence Channel,” Marketing Dive, July 25, 2019

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