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Beyond the blue plate

“Senior” just doesn’t mean what it used to. senior

When Bruce Springsteen makes the cover of AARP The Magazine, you know that the whole “senior citizen” concept has been turned on its head. For this, you can credit one demographic group: the baby boomers, the first of whom turned 60 in 2006. Now 40 million strong, the aging-boomer crowd remains hugely influential in pop culture, politics and all things consumer-related.

If you think this cohort is feeble or predictable, think again. “They’re certainly heavier restaurant users than their parents were,” says Bonnie Riggs, a restaurant industry analyst with NPD Group in Chicago. “A person in their 60s today is nothing like a 60-something was 10, 15 or 20 years ago.”

In fact, a recent study by the Pew Research Center found that 93 percent of the growth in the U.S. labor force from 2006 to 2016 will be among workers ages 55 and older. Reason: Older adults are staying in the labor force longer—in part due to the recession, which devastated many older workers’ retirement savings, but also because many simply want to keep working.

According to Riggs, these stats have significant implications for restaurant operators. “Since these people are going to be staying in the workplace for an extended period of time, they’re going to look for convenient options, good food choices and a great dining experience,” she says.

In particular, Riggs cautions against complacency in the face of supermarkets’ ongoing efforts to improve their prepared food options. Shaw’s Supermarkets, for example, recently built a new store in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, that features a panini station, a pasta bar and brick oven pizza. “It’s great, restaurant-quality food, at much lower than restaurant prices,” Mike Witynski, president of Shaw’s, told National Public Radio. “And you don't have to tip.”

A reassuring fact about this demographic: They like to dine out. In fact, NPD’s research shows that diners ages 50 to 64 are the second-heaviest restaurant users, behind only 18 to 34 year olds. The average member of this age group made 205 restaurant visits in the 12 months through September 2009, down from 209 a year earlier. Diners over age 65 are at the back of the pack, with an average of just 159 visits during that period.

Though the oldest diners are less frequent restaurant users, it’s worth noting that they’re the only age group whose restaurant visits held steady during the worst of the recession. That rings true to Sherry Cameron, who is CEO of Bill Johnson’s Big Apple Restaurant, a five-unit barbecue concept in Arizona. Older diners are a key part of her customer base, and they bring distinct benefits compared to younger diners, she says. “They are very loyal diners if you treat them well—as long as they’re getting good customer service and value for their dollars.”

Indeed, Riggs notes that older diners tend to be “more forgiving” than their younger counterparts; their satisfaction levels tend to be higher than those of younger consumers. “They don’t seem to be as demanding,” she says. As with diners as a whole, older diners changed their restaurant preferences during the recession, foregoing fine dining in favor of QSR and fast-casual chains, according to Riggs. In particular, they’re spending time—and money—at gourmet coffee and tea shops, as well as quickservice places such as Panera Bread.

What’s more, Riggs doesn’t expect them to migrate back to fine dining any time soon. “They’re anticipating retirement, their home values have fallen and their 401(k)s have gotten hit particularly hard,” she says. “Returning to those free-spending ways is not going to happen any time soon for any age group—and especially for these older consumers.”

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