CHICAGO — In an era where foodservice sales are flat and food delivery is expanding rapidly, it’s more important than ever to draw people in to restaurants and other foodservice settings — including instore prepared foods sections — with the promise of memorable experiences.

And foodservice operators looking to pick up their game would be wise to take their cues from the youngest diners among us.

Those were among the takeaways from a May 19 presentation at the 2018 National Restaurant Association Show, “The Future of Guest Experience,” which featured both industry leaders and Chicago-area Gen Zers who work in foodservice.

“Gen Z is a force that the foodservice industry must become acutely aware of if it wants to grow and to stay relevant,” said Alec Frisch, vice president and general manager of GP PRO, a division of Atlanta-based Georgia Pacific, which sponsored the presentation.

The foodservice industry is going through a period of intense change, filled with challenges and opportunities, and Gen Z is “leading that change,” said Abhijeet Jadhav, GP PRO’s senior manager for marketing strategy and the presentation’s moderator.

Members of Gen Z have shorter attention spans, want value for their money and are “much more supportive” than other demographic groups of brands that reflect their social values, Jadhav said. They want experiences that are “buzz-worthy,” he said — something they can share with friends and family.

And, of course, they want to share all those things online. Don’t forget, presentation panelists said, that online is about the only way to reach this target audience — the first “tech natives,” as Jadhav called them.

“You’re not able to get to them through traditional methods — only 7 percent of them watch TV,” said Brandy Blackwell, director of off-premise marketing for Atlanta-based McAlister’s Deli. You Tube, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram (Facebook not so much) might be your best bets.

And keep in mind, Blackwell said, that Gen Zers are driven by deals and discounts and are likely to make decisions spontaneously. That same spontaneity and short attention span means foodservice purveyors need to work harder than ever to pull them in. McAlister’s, for instance, will launch a new prototype store this year, Blackwell said, that has a smaller footprint, a pickup window and grab ‘n go options.


Digital, deals  

One foodservice company that has figured out the importance of value to the youngest generation of consumers is burger chain Red Robin. Panelist Michael Buchmeier, vice president of operations excellence for Greenwood Village, Colorado-based Red Robin, said the company rolled out its $6.99 “tavern” platform of menu items largely with Gen Z in mind.

“By 2020 they’ll account for 40 percent of all purchases, and value is extremely important to them,” he said. When Red Robin, for instance, ran a TV ad about a farmer who grew potatoes used to make Red Robin French fries, not that many Gen Zers saw the ad (remember: they don’t watch TV). But a hugely disproportionate number of them made comments on the chain’s social platforms praising Red Robin for telling them where their food came from.

Sometimes it takes more than low prices to fully get young people’s attention these days. Red Robin is reaching this tech-obsessed demographic with its tabletop devices, which expedite payment and provide a variety of the “experiences” young diners crave. “They’re not so much about sales as about putting the control of the experience with guests,” Buchmeier said of the devices. “We ask, ‘How can we go to where the guests are?’ A lot of our initiatives are about that.”

In addition to putting diners in the driver’s seat, the on-table devices at Red Robin save time, reduce errors and provide a treasure trove of usable guest feedback, Buchmeier said. “It was in the 7 million range last year,” he said of the number of comments received via the devices. “That’s a powerful amount of data.”

Of course, the dominance of those devices means many Gen Zers can order their food without ever having to step foot in a brick-and-mortar restaurant or retail prepared foods department. As a result, chains like Red Robin are reevaluating the pace at which they open new stores. “Things are shifting more and more to off-premise sales,” Buchmeier said. “We have to figure out whether opening a 6,000-square-foot restaurant is the best way to use our money.”


Alternate channels, social awareness

Providing a first-hand view on the panel were two Chicago-area residents who are themselves Gen Zers (and foodservice workers). Jessica Bahena said that she and her friends “tag” themselves via social media wherever they go, taking photos, reviewing what they’re doing (or eating). That’s how Gen Zers often find out about a new restaurant or other foodservice venue, and it’s what determines whether they decide to give it a try.

The other Gen Zer on the panel, Joseline Fuentes, agreed. If a restaurant is advertising on TV or through another traditional media channel, you can pretty much guarantee Fuentes won’t see it. “I don’t really watch TV,” she said. “And if I do, I fast-forward through the ads. Or watch Netflix.”

Both Bahena and Fuentes agree with the industry veterans that Gen Zers are highly motivated by political and social causes. “Taking care of the environment is a big thing for me,” Bahena said. Fuentes said she was strongly affected by a video of a turtle choking on a plastic straw. Her sister, who also saw the video, will now use reusable straws only. (Vendors promoting their reusable straws could be found on the NRA ’18 show floor.)

Some old values, however, remain relevant to today’s young consumers. While both Bahena and Fuentes appreciate digital bells and whistles like the Red Robin on-table devices — “It helps pass the time before the server comes,” Bahena said — they’re also impressed by old-fashioned customer service.

“The convenience (of the on-table devices) is great, but the server experience is huge for me,” Fuentes said. “It’s a give and take, a little bit of both. As long as there’s a balance there.”