Millennials are, without a doubt, shaping the direction of the restaurant industry. The reliance on tech, the need for convenience, the desire to connect with a brand on a more personal level—all are forcing operators to question their traditional approaches. Here are a few ways (I hope) the restaurant business will change in 2016, both for and because of millennials.
1. Millennial bashing will come to a halt
As much as I love to hear in restaurant-industry presentations that millennials are lazy, entitled slackers, I’m ready for that message to come to an end. I’d like all of the one-time-hippie boomers to think back to when they were in their 20s and early 30s. Older generations didn’t have the best things to say about your attitudes, either. Having a different approach to a job doesn’t mean we’re not hard working or determined.
After all, plenty of restaurant chains now have millennials at the executive level—they couldn’t have made it there if they were slackers. So instead of trying to force an entire generation into a negative stereotype, this next year will hopefully bring an effort to understand better how the different generations—boomers, gen x, millennials and even the newbie gen zers—can work together.
2. Lower beef prices will boost steakhouse business among millennials
Beef prices have been skyrocketing, giving consumers one more reason to consider steakhouses “special occasion” spots. While price is a factor in that classification, it’s also because steakhouses traditionally have been “fancy” restaurants. But there’s a slowly developing pop in modern steakhouses, many of which are tailored to the millennial style of eating. Some identifying factors of this more modern breed of steakhouse: rustic design, cloth-free tabletops, open kitchens with big wood-fire grills, some funkier sides, in-house butchery, etc. It fits right in with the more casual yet adventurous millennial diner—and it’s somewhere I (and other millennials) would frequent for more than just birthdays and anniversaries. So here’s to hoping the cost of cow decreases, making the price of these modern steakhouses more approachable for the masses.
3. The NLRB won’t kill millennials’ entrepreneurial spirit
At this point, many millennials are well established in their careers and ready to branch out on their own. They want to start their own businesses, be their own bosses. And many are turning to the restaurant industry to do so. Now, though, the National Labor Relations Board has threatened the very reason why so many millennials—and others—want to be franchisees. The NLRB is trying to strip the freedom for franchisees to operate as business owners—a lose-lose for both the franchisor and franchisee. Hopefully in 2016 the labor organization will lose some of the ridiculous power it’s been wielding, encouraging more franchisees to grow both regional and national brands.
4. Tech-enabled ordering will continue to evolve
Thanks to Dominos’ AnyWare campaign, 2015 was the year customers could finally order their pizza via Twitter or emoji. While this millennial certainly thinks that kind of ordering functionality is just a little unnecessary (for real, how hard is it to submit a normal online order through an app?), more brands will expand the methods by which guests can order to-go food in the coming year. The most basic method will be improving in-app ordering, while others will search for funky, New Age ways to simplify the process even more. Disappearing Snapchat orders, maybe? At the same time, phone-in orders will go the way of, well, rotary phones. More and more restaurants will direct callers to their website or app.
5. New prototypes will fit millennials’ desire for delivery without aggravating in-store guests
Ok, the stereotype that millennials like convenient dining options is true. And restaurants are getting on board, as seen by the growing number of chains that partnered with third-party delivery services in 2015. But you know what’s really frustrating? When you go into a fast casual and the wait is 10+ minutes, yet there are only five other guests in the store. However, messengers keeps flying in and out, collecting food that’s done before yours to drop off.
Get on top of this trend isn’t as easy as simply accepting online orders; stores aren’t necessarily equipped to handle online orders in addition to in-store ones. Changes already have started slowly. Chipotle is revamping its second “make line,” while Panera is touting the success of its off-site hubs that handle catering and delivery, freeing up restaurants to focus on in-store guests. As companies like DoorDash and Postmates continue to proliferate, operators—in order to stay competitive by offering delivery—are going to have to figure out how to handle an influx in orders at any time without bogging down the kitchen. For many, that will be the excuse needed to launch a new store design in the coming year.
6. Speaking of millennials wanting convenience, savory breakfast bowls will boom
Yes, boring egg sandwiches that are good for on-the-go situations will remain a mainstay. But think congee bowl with a poached egg, bacon XO sauce and crispy garlic (my favorite breakfast bowl to date)—satisfying the millennial craving for protein and ethnic fare. Porridge, oatmeal and yogurt all will be made over in 2016, providing those of us who are anti-sweet breakfast an alternative on-the-go option to a sandwich.
7. McDonald’s will rebound by telling millennials its brand story
Ok, that’s not the only thing that’ll pull the fledgling QSR out of its years-long slump. But it will help. When I was a kid, I thought McDonald’s was awesome. But that image is all but gone. I’d actually like to see if brought back to that original glory. Millennials are turning away from big corporations in favor of brands that stand for something, brands with a story that consumers can feel good about. Um, hello—Ronald McDonald House Charities is that “feel good” mission consumers can get behind. Between that and the regional efforts taken by some franchisees, it’ll be back in the game.
8. Buh-bye, communal tables
This is more of a personal hope than one backed up by industry ongoings. As with many millennials, dining out is my go-to social activity. It’s the time to meet up with friends to talk about our lives. So sharing a table with strangers while discussing intimate, personal details can be more than a little uncomfortable. If I wanted to share space with someone I didn’t know, I’d head to the bar. The whole dining space doesn’t have to be that way. If an operator really feels the need to have more of a communal space, save it for the lounge area—stock traditional tables in the dining room.