Special Reports

Tastes of the times

Whether your diners are 18 years old or 68, find out how each generation is putting its own stamp on the foodservice industry.
Photograph: Shutterstock

Much has been written about the millennial generation. This tour de force group of consumers has been dissected, discussed and derided by consultants and the media for years as they’ve worked to determine what makes them tick. What are their likes and dislikes? How do they think? What do they want? And in the process of all of that study, older generations evolved, and a newer, more complicated generation has emerged. With the help of Technomic’s 2018 Generational Consumer Trend Report, RB editors worked to find out the dining habits of eaters across the generations.

Gen Z

When Chris Burkhardt came to Cleveland Metropolitan School District a little more than a year ago, he came with the goal of offering students meals that reflected what they would find outside of school. As the district’s new executive director for school nutrition, he knew he had to shift the district’s menu offerings to appeal to students’ eating habits.

Roughly 40% of Generation Z (those born between 1993 and 2000) eat their food on the go, more than any other generation, according to Technomic.

In an attempt to appeal to Gen Z’s constant, on-the-move lifestyle, the nutrition team set a goal to offer a majority of its menu items in a handheld format. While some dishes such as soup and salad, which are now placed in to-go cups, were easier to transition, others have been a little more difficult to convert.

“We had to get a little creative,” Burkhardt says. “The vessel for holding things is probably the hardest. We’ve gone back and forth in kind of finding what works and what doesn’t. That’s still a work in progress.” 

One of the team’s more creative transformations was converting chicken Parmesan into a dish that students can eat on the run. The team offers the dish as a sandwich served on a hamburger bun. 

Other dishes still need a few tweaks. For example, the team is working to perfect its barbecue chicken panini, which is currently served wrapped in foil like a burrito. Burkhardt says the foil wrapping is “not an ideal situation” because it’s messy when students try and take it from the serving line.

Although the transition to handheld has brought challenges, roughly 75% to 80% of the district’s menu items are now handheld. And most importantly, they have been well-received by the students, Burkhardt says.

“Students these days are not just sitting down at a table. They’re more social. They’re up and moving maybe with a phone or tablet with one hand or up at a computer doing work,” he says. “There’s a lot of different scenarios where students have to be a little bit more portable with their food options versus what was going on five, ten, fifteen years ago.”

Fresh from the farm

This summer, the Housing and Food Services department at Pennsylvania State University in University Park, Pa., announced a $50,000 contribution from auxiliary and business services to go toward the school’s student farm. The influx of cash will help support paid student interns and an assistant farm manager.

For three years now, the student farm has worked in tandem with Housing and Food Services, supplying dining halls with produce such as tomatoes, cucumbers, kale, thyme, parsley and more. Compost from the dining halls is also sent over to the farm.

Senior Director of Enterprise Services James Richard says that the idea and creation of the farm were spearheaded by the students themselves.

“The entire student farm effort is organized through a student organization here at University Park,” he says. “It’s managed and operated by the students, for the students. At its very genesis, it’s a student, ground-up effort.”

Penn State’s students’ desire for fresh, local foods falls in line with national trends. According to Technomic’s 2017 College and University Consumer Trend Report, 45% of college students—most of whom are members of Gen Z—say it’s important to use fresh ingredients, and 44% say it’s important that their school is transparent about how ingredients are sourced.

The Housing and Dining Services team also hosts monthly meetings with the student farmers to go over upcoming menu cycles and other logistics.

Throughout the year, students from the farm visit the dining halls to educate their peers on what’s currently growing at the farm. Students are also treated to meals using nothing but hyper-local ingredients from the student farm and other surrounding farms twice a semester.

Richard says he hopes the partnership will continue to grow in the future, especially as the farm adds more interns.

“We’re hoping to have an opportunity for our intern pool to interact with [the farm’s] intern pool and sort of cross-pollinate the effort around the student farm and residential dining.”


What gives with millennials? By now, you know the tropes of this generation like those in it know their Twitter feeds. 

Yet as much as folks like to pigeonhole millennial diners (avocado toast, anyone?), perhaps their generalizations aren’t always so spot-on.  

First of all, millennials aren’t who they used to be. They’re getting older—and what they want out of foodservice is changing along with their idea of what makes a fun Friday night. As this group navigates new stations in life, with growing careers and changing priorities and, for many, kids, the interests of those youngest millennials (age 26) can vary widely from their counterparts entering their 40s. 

Second, millennials may have not been that #monolithic to begin with. 

Through its own research over the years, Parkhurst Dining uncovered that consumers of the millennial and Gen Z variety are not that easy to homogenize. The idea that “they all do this and they all do that” doesn’t truly bear out, says Mark Broadhurst, vice president for the contract management company, which oversees foodservice at about 35 colleges and 35 business and industry outlets. 

On the run

But if forced to analyze in broad strokes, a few key themes emerge. Millennial diners are busy, with 39% saying they frequently have no choice but to eat on the go, per Technomic’s recent Generational Consumer Trend Report. Despite that squeeze, they may not be relying on processed items to save them time. Half of millennials said they’d pay more for foods described as fresh, while 42% said the same of scratch-made and natural items. 

Around the globe

When it comes to food choices, they take an exploratory approach: 64% of millennials say they enjoy trying new flavors, while 44% would like to see more ethnic options at restaurants, according to Technomic. Older millennials tend to gravitate toward crowd-pleasing cuisines that are also sharable, such as Italian and Mexican, likely influenced by their families. 

Tech top of mind

Millennials are the demographic most interested in tech-centric offerings from foodservice, Technomic found, eclipsing even Gen Z. Mobile ordering ranks highly among millennials, with 59% saying they’d be likely to use it, as does online order tracking, with 58% expressing interest. 

At Oracle’s new Austin, Texas, office—a corporate live-work campus that caters largely to millennial staff—the dining team found that the addition of self-checkout kiosks actually enhances the level of service it provides, rather than detracts from it. 

Despite initial concern over the kiosks, “that [customer] interaction remains huge,” Shon O’Donnell, general manager of the campus’ foodservice, told FoodService Director earlier this year. “Not only has it not taken a back seat, but our staff is actually freed up to interact more because we don’t have to place people at cash registers.”

Gen X

Gen X is a generation of planners. On the younger end of the 42 to 52 age range, many Gen Xers are making plans to save for their kids’ college. On the older end, retirement. Either way, when it comes to money, they’re counting their pennies. 

But it’s not just planning that has this generation minding its money. A recent Forbes survey gives Gen X an average financial wellness score of 4.8 on a 0-10 scale. It counts retirement planning, getting out of debt and managing cash flow as the top three priorities of this age group in terms of money management. And it lists its vulnerabilities as not having enough saved for retirement, a lack of emergency savings and living beyond their means. 

This uncertainty around money has affected how Gen X chooses where they eat. Low prices continue to drive preference. And as a larger percentage of this group struggles to make ends meet, discounts begin to matter more.

Growth of fast food

As with all generational breakouts, younger Gen Xers don’t generally see eye-to-eye with older ones when it comes to dining preferences. But both groups overwhelmingly choose fast food over other restaurant segments, with 85% of the total demographic visiting fast-food restaurants on a monthly basis, according to the Generational Consumer Trend Report

But younger Gen Xers are more likely to choose a full-service restaurant, particularly one that appeals to families with younger kids, with 51% of younger Gen Xers (ages 42-47) visiting a traditional full-service establishment at least once a month compared to older Gen Xers at 43%. 

Among the cuisines they choose at these restaurants, Gen Xers prefer burgers, chicken, tacos or burritos, hot coffee, bottled water, smoothies and sports drinks more than any of the other generations. Ever the evolving group, those preferences don’t stop there.

Global flavor seekers

Most of Generation X has a more adventurous palate. Overall, 62% of Gen X likes to try new flavors from time to time, with younger Gen Xers edging out the older crowd by 3 percentage points when it comes to trying new things, with 63% saying they like new flavors occasionally. And 27% of older Gen Xers prefer sticking with their favorite flavors, rarely trying new ones.

These flavor preferences could explain why younger Gen Xers enjoy less mainstream global cuisines such as Japanese, sushi and Caribbean food, according to Technomic. Older Gen Xers, on the other hand, prefer a limited-service restaurant that offers a more traditional menu.

On health and kits

Living a healthy lifestyle is likewise important to Generation X, with many choosing home cooking as a way to save money and eat healthier at the same time. Meal kit usage is more prevalent in Gen X than in the millennial and baby boomer generations, particularly because it saves them a trip to the store and allows them to make healthier choices. Generally speaking, 49% of Gen Xers are cooking at home more often, compared to 42% of Gen Z and 46% of millennials. 


Baby boomers grew up eating many of their meals in restaurants, school and corporate cafeterias and college dining halls. Patronizing foodservice establishments is part of their DNA, and indeed, more than half of today’s consumers between the ages of 53 and 72 use foodservice on a weekly basis. But they bring different expectations to the experience. Compared to the generation that preceded them, baby boomers have been exposed to more flavors, ingredients and cuisines. They also have changing ideas about healthy eating and convenience. So how are these preferences playing out in noncommercial?  

Although many Americans over 65 are still working, baby boomers are gradually moving into retirement communities. Here’s how operators in senior living are paying close attention to the preferences and demands of this generation. 

Transparency replaces stealth health 

When Executive Chef Steve Plescha came to Pennswood Village in Newtown, Pa., 13 years ago, reducing fat and sodium were major health goals, but the kitchen had to be a little sneaky about it. “Stealth health” was the order of the day; substituting citrus and herbs for salt, for example, but not revealing the switch. 

“Now residents want to know everything, and we put the place of origin on all our proteins and produce and describe how the animals were slaughtered,” Plescha says. “We’re up front and in your face.”

That transparency fits into boomers’ current definition of health, which includes terms such as local, fresh and clean. Plescha’s team makes all Pennswood’s salad dressings from scratch with natural agave, creating a cleaner product with just six ingredients instead of the 15 in the previously purchased commercial dressing. 

The salad bar itself now includes a variety of beans and legumes and fresh vegetables, some from residents’ gardens, that are rotated seasonally into the dinner menu. And while there’s little call for vegan dishes, “vegetable-forward plates now comprise 30% of the menu compared to 10% a few years back,” he says. 

Flavor first

While older residents may consider Chinese and Italian ethnic cuisines, younger newcomers are craving Thai, Vietnamese and Middle Eastern dishes, says Caitlin Rogers, VP of dining and nutrition services for Sunrise Senior Living. Regional American flavors are also trending, with chefs at each of Sunrise’s 300 communities creating locally specific menus, such as Tex-Mex in the Southwest and coastal seafood in the Southeast. 

“We’re in preparation mode, creating a foundation so we’re ahead of the influx of baby boomers coming into our communities,” she says.

Technomic data reveals that 70% of baby boomers put a high priority on taste, and chefs are responding by building more global flavors into dishes, particularly with seafood—a protein in high demand among this age group. Favorite menu items at Vi at Bentley Village, an 800-resident community in Naples, Fla., include seared tuna with papaya slaw and miso aioli and ginger sherried broiled salmon with black quinoa salad, reports Executive Chef Shep Drinkwater. Pairing more exotic flavors with familiar foods wins over residents, he says. 

Meal flexibility on the rise

Snacking and off-premise dining—two trends that baby boomers are embracing along with younger consumers—are starting to impact senior living communities. “Our Mediterranean concept is doing 85 to 90 meals to go a day,” says Drinkwater. Another cafe concept offers wraps, light sandwiches and low-sugar desserts for between-meal snacks. 

“We have bistros in all our [Sunrise] communities that are stocked for all-day eating with cheese and crackers, beverages and other snacks,” Rogers says. In addition, afternoon activities may revolve around snacking, such as a made-to-order smoothie station. “The snacking piece is really important and will continue to grow,” she says.

Get more intel on today's consumers.

Members help make our journalism possible. Become a Restaurant Business member today and unlock exclusive benefits, including unlimited access to all of our content. Sign up here.


Exclusive Content


Winners and losers from a tough first quarter

The Bottom Line: Wingstop (again) and Texas Roadhouse (also again) were among the big winners last quarter, while the fast-food value proposition is among the losers.


Red Lobster needs a buyer. How does Darden sound?

Reality Check: The casual dining giant sold Red Lobster in a cloud of controversy a decade ago. Here's why a return to the fold may not be as crazy as it sounds.


KFC goes portable and poppable to grab the snacking generation

Behind the Menu: Bite-size Apple Pie Poppers, created to target customers' sweet spot, lend themselves to line extensions to expand the chain’s snack selections.


More from our partners