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Generational dining habits: my family case study

The restaurant industry has spent many hours and many dollars trying to understand millennials—how their habits, their preferences and their purchasing-decision drivers differ from other consumers. Instead of making generalizations and generic statements about my demographic, I opted to perform a simple case study of my own: I went out to dinner with my family and observed the differences in our opinions and behaviors.


The Players

The younger millennial
For some perspective, my 20-something hipster brother still lives at home. He’s just starting his career, so while he’s employed, his income is relatively low. He considers himself an adventurous eater and thinks he’s hip to the trends, but right now that just means he’s very into ethnic fare (mostly Hispanic) and spicy flavors.

The older millennial
Admittedly, I’ve got a slightly skewed perspective on restaurants, since I read and write about them all day. Plus, I go out to eat … a lot.

The boomers
My upper-middle class parents are both in their 50s and lead a comfortable lifestyle in the Chicago suburbs. They dine out a fair amount, but often stick to the convenient spots they’ve come to know and love.


The Results

Drink preferences
The most stereotypical differences came from our drink orders. After grilling our server about the wheat and hops, my brother ordered a craft beer. Seeing a unique listing on the cocktail menu, I was drawn to a housemade seasonal special featuring green tea-and-peach-infused vodka over prosecco, which my dad described as a “foodie” drink. And my parents kept it simple, ordering classic wine varietals.

Tech tolerance
Another key differentiator between the generations was cellphone usage. At different points throughout the meal, my brother subtly checked his phone for missed texts, while I whipped mine out twice to take pictures of the food. My parents, however, kept theirs hidden throughout the meal.

Decision drivers
For the most part, our food preferences were not discernable based on the generational differences. What we did notice was more of the shift in family dynamics. We’ve always dined out as a family, but in the past, my parents always selected the restaurants. Now, my brother and I eat out much more; it’s a major part of both of our social lives. Because of this, our parents looked to us for a restaurant suggestion.

They also turned to us (read: mostly me) for menu suggestions. We opted to share several dishes as a table (after all, millennials love sharing small plates), and the decisions were left to me. Knowing their taste preferences, I dove in, ordering dishes my mom said they “normally would never have thought to order,” but that I knew they would find delicious. Past research suggests that millennials are more adventurous in their eating habits, but this meal showed that boomers aren’t averse to less traditional foods—they just don’t always know what to order when they’ve stuck to the classics for so long. It also bears mentioning that, as a millennial who dines out often, I had a general idea of how much food to order for our four-top.

Dining times
Unlike when they had small children, my parents were in no rush to hurry through the meal; the table of young parents with their toddler next to us—likely in my older-millennial age bracket—were in and out before we hit our second round of drinks. My boomer parents wanted to spend leisurely time relaxing, eating, drinking and chitchatting, even asking the server to pace out the meal. While I enjoyed the slow pace for a change, my younger brother, used to the turn-the-table mentality, noted that the service was slow. Quick to tell him that’s what we asked for, my brother soon admitted that it was nice to not feel rushed.

Cost constraints (or lack thereof)
For me and my brother, the relaxation came in a another form: financial relaxation. Typically, when either of us dines out, the first thing we look at is the price column. Knowing this was not a concern (as we were not picking up the check), we were more free with our ordering. And my parents, who are typically more free with their spending at restaurants, a common characteristic among boomers, got to try new dishes that they’ll be sure to order again.

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