Gen Zers, also loosely called Post-Millennials, Centennials, Digital Natives, Neo-Digital Natives and others, refers to people born in the mid-1990s to early-2000s (yes, you heard that right)through the 2010s and 20s.
Post-Millennial was the name given by the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services. Census studies show that as of April 2016, the Millennial generation surpassed Baby Boomers (77 million vs. 76 million), but the group of Post-Millennials continues to grow. With a current total of 69 million people, expectations are that Post-Millenials will surpass older generations.
Members of Generation Z do share many similarities with their older counterparts, namely, they can be considered “Digital Natives.” That means this group has not experienced life without the internet. In fact, Gen Zers are more than comfortable with all forms of digital technology, from basic web-based applications to smartphones, tablets and social media.
As this group of high school and college-aged students begin to go out to eat with their friends, rather than with their parents, they represent the next wave of restaurant customers.
Jennifer Murphy, of Street Collaborative LLC, a design firm in Baton Rouge, La., describes Generation Z consumers as “Millennials but amped up one more level.”
“They still want the same things, especially natural, organic and healthy food, but they’re even more into hyper-local food and companies with strong sustainability philosophies,” she says. “They’re also looking for even healthier options and want to make sure their favorite restaurants and brands are transparent and don’t have anything to hide.”
Super Open Kitchens
Generation Z’s dining preferences has a huge impact on foodservice design. “With Gen Zs, you want a no ‘BS’ approach to design,” Murphy says. “You have to take the open kitchen design one step further and even show where and how the food is prepped. In addition to transparency, this design adds more theatre to the dining experience.”
In fast-casual settings, the prep kitchen behind the front line might be open, or there could be a window into that area. Gen Zers prefer this level of openness because they feel it not only guarantees the freshness of the food but also suggests the food — and employees — remain clean and safe amidst recent foodborne illness outbreaks.
For the natural-organic-local food Gen Zers want, foodservice operators not only need plenty of prep space, but also cold storage, not freezer space, according to Murphy. Flexible equipment allows operators to change their menus according to the availability of locally sourced ingredients during a particular season.
Similar to Millennials, in college/university settings, Gen Zers, prefer robust salad bars, with fresh-cut veggies as well as freshly made mini salads and various types of proteins, including vegetarian-friendly tofu and other offerings.
“I’m also seeing more juice and smoothie bars,” Murphy says.
Integrating a robust pre-and post-consumer composting and/or other waste reduction program is also important when designing for Gen Zers. “They want to see a commitment to sustainability,” Murphy says.
It’s not enough for operators to simply act in a socially responsible manner. Rather, operators must also educate consumers about these initiatives through visible signage, imagery and other marketing materials.
Gen Z consumers seem to be even more into causes and social consciousness than Millennials, Murphy says.
They want to know the fabric for the chairs was created without harming the environment, or that the brand donates proceeds to various charities, such as hurricane rescue or cancer research.
“A lot of this information can be advertised online as well as through imagery throughout the restaurant,” Murphy says.
Design detail-wise, Gen Zers tend to prefer a more modern appearance with crisp, clean-looking designs and more white space, not unlike a modern website, Murphy says. They’re also keen on natural, sustainable and renewable materials like reclaimed wood tables, chairs made out of recycled plastic, green walls and more. These materials also speak to that commitment to environmental-friendliness and the sustainability Gen Zers seek.
Members of this generation also prefer many more options for seating, from counter seating and “captain’s tables” for lone diners to flexible group tables with room for four, six or eight people, Murphy says.
“Instead of just rows of tables you might also see more soft seating options in the form of couches and lounge chairs where people can relax and enjoy a coffee and hang out.
Gen Zers aren’t all about cookie-cutter; they appreciate unique, even funky design details in their spaces. “You have to put yourself out there and do something out of the norm — they expect that,” Murphy says. “For example, a restaurant in New Orleans we worked on most recently had pictures of cats and chickens on restaurant doors instead of ‘men’ and ‘women’ — subtle, little things like that really catch their attention.”
Naturally, when designing for digital natives like Gen Zers, integrating technology and social media plays an important role, Murphy says. But this continues to become more important to people from all generations.
“More people want to be able to order their food online and pick it up when they get to the restaurant right away,” Murphy says. “And digital table ordering is great for those dining alone because they can get all of their food and work done without having to interact with anyone.”
Offering free Wi-Fi is a must and chargers should be prevalent. Some chains now employ digital menu boards, a modern version of the chalkboard, to accommodate more frequently changing, seasonal menus. These boards can also display farm sources and even push specials and social media feeds, according to Murphy.
Paying attention to these distinct details when it comes to catering to Generation Z members will help restaurants and other foodservice operators compete with each other as this consumer base only continues to grow.