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Chicago tops NYC when it comes to millennial appeal

Dare I say it? Chicago is a better food town than New York City for millennials. Before you scoff, let me explain.

When most people think of the foodie city in the U.S., they think New York. From hot celebrity chefs to buzzed-about restaurant openings, NYC has it all. Except for one thing—total participation and buy-in from a major demographic.

While attending the Chicago leg of the Cochon555 competition, my colleague (and semi-recent New York transplant) made a keen observation. The annual pork cook-off was teeming with millennials. In the past year since her relocation, she’s noticed that these food events are a huge part of the social scene for young Chicagoans. In New York, it’s not the same, she said. While these events might get the attendance of New Yorkers, food-centric events aren’t the go-to weekend activity like they are in Chicago.

So while I might be out on a ledge saying this—and I’m sure I’ll get some glares from New Yorkers who think everything is inferior to NYC—I’d suggest that Chicago actually is doing a better job selling its food scene and appealing to local millennials.

As evidence, it’s not just people in the food industry who attend Chicago’s food-centric events. You won’t just see the city’s “it” people dressed to the nines sipping wine at these gatherings. Rather, excited unknowns grouped together in jeans buzz about the “unbelievable” headcheese they just tried or the “to die for” chicharone croquette on offer. Standing around the cocktails tables and listening in on the groups, there seems to be no pretenses. People don’t care who you are or what you’re wearing—they just want to talk about the food.

So what are Chicago operators and event planners doing to draw in everyday millennials? They’re going beyond the “if you build it, they will come” mentality … and it’s working. They aren’t relying solely on the big names to draw crowds, but rather they’re painting a picture of all-encompassing, one-time-only events.

And marketers know that millennials will spend for these limited-edition events. A recent study by Atlanta-based SunTrust Banks found that, among those who aren’t saving as much as they believe they should because of spending on lifestyle purchases, 70 percent of millennials blame dining out. When I first saw this stat, my reaction was telling: “Huh, sounds about right.” I’d definitely have a lot more in the bank if I wasn’t eating out multiple times a week or dropping relatively large sums to attend food festivals and restaurant events.

I’m clearly not the only one spending dough on these events, either. Chicago millennials drop hundreds of dollars on tickets to get into foodie occasions such as Chicago Gourmet, Burger Bash, Tasting Table’s Open Market and more. And those are just the big ones. I’ve personally paid to participate in Paddy Long’s beer-and-bacon tasting on the North Side on more than one occasion and my friends venture out for the different themed food and beer fests all summer long.

To be fair, part of that higher Chicago buy-in might come from the geographic differences. Millennials on both Coasts may be all about dieting and appearance, but that’s not as much the case in the Midwest. In Chicago, they’re just as willing to eat the deep-fried bacon as they are the healthy salad.

And I’m not saying millennials in New York City don’t revel in eating out. That spending stat is based on national data, not just Chicago. But marketers have realized that young Chicagoans’ social activities are centered on food, and they’re playing to that.

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