Best Chains for Millennials—What Do They Have in Common?

Feb 05, 2016

Restaurant Business magazine’s recent special report on “The Consumer: What Drives Today’s Consumers” raises lots of interesting questions.


Take the piece on “Millennials’ Favorite Chains,” which details the preferences and habits of that cohort of the population whose loyalty everyone seems to be after these days. At Synergy, we are particularly interested in this group because we have worked with seven of the brands on the list: Firehouse Subs, Raising Cane’s Chicken Fingers, and Fuddruckers in the fast casual segment; IHOP and Huddle House in midscale dining; and Seasons 52 in casual dining.


What characteristics unite concepts as seemingly diverse as a quick-casual chicken specialist and an iconic 24-hour diner specializing in breakfast and other comfort foods, the donut franchise Krispy Kreme and The Cheesecake Factory with its mega-menu of trendy foods? And when you compare the Millennial’s list to the overall consumer favorites, what are the key takeaways about these folks who were born in the 1980s and ‘90s, also known as Generation Y?


1. They’re looking for value. And value means different things for different need-states. For a busy Millennial mom with young children in tow after a soccer game, there’s value in Raising Cane’s menu anchored by a kid-friendly product (chicken fingers!) that also appeals to adults. And for the Southerners in Huddle House’s core markets, hearty servings of traditional favorites like Patty Melts, Country Fried Steak and signature all-day breakfast resonates.


2. They want healthy options, emphasis on the option part. Like all consumers, Millennials may say they concerned about health and nutrition but still order dessert, and in fact there’s ample evidence that this cohort is actually less likely to follow common dietary guidelines. If you examine the menu at a Seasons 52, you’ll see items like entrée salads and a Vegetarian tasting along with more indulgent choices like a Braised Short Rib and Aged Cheddar Flatbread—but note that most of the items follow the brand’s stated goal of weighing in at under 600 calories. That’s called having it both ways.


3. They insist on variety and on calling their own shots. Even within the narrow parameters of its core product, Krispy Kreme’s cult following is achieved via dozens and dozens of doughnut varieties, including LTOs like football- and heart-shaped doughnuts and fun emoji-inspired items like the Smirk. And while none of the brands on the list has a telltale DIY menu feature, a huge menu like The Cheesecake Factory’s 250-plus-item list allows customers to order whatever and how much they want.


4. They’re fueled by a sense of nostalgia. Huddle House has been in business since 1964, IHOP since ’58, In-N-Out since 1948. No Gen Y’er was around then, of course, but the increasingly complicated circumstances of entering adulthood now are leading this beleaguered generation to long for the “good old days” and the warm fuzzy feeling that a plate of pancakes can provide.


5. They’re very social—and socially conscious. Younger Millennials are still very much into meeting up with friends, having a few drinks, and sharing and sampling an experience-based dining occasion. Can you say Bahama Breeze, with its huge selection of appetizers, small plates and snacks, and over-the-top desserts, plus cocktails and tiki drinks by the pageful? This generation is also very socially conscious, a dictum that defines Firehouse Subs, with its community-based Helping Our Hometown Heroes foundation.


6. They’re turned on by great service and the personal touch. From its earliest roots in Southern hospitality, Chik-fil-A has been known for its customer orientation—an approach that hasn’t changed even as the brand has moved into high-tech features like app-based ordering and staffers armed with tablets to speed up the line in busy New York City.


Raising Cane’s photo credit: Shoshanah license CC by 2.0