Consumer behavior has changed dramatically over the past decade as Millennial spending increases. The defining feature of this generation is a preference for experiences over things, and this preference has forced consumer brands to focus on more than products and services. 

In many industries, successful companies are the ones that look for ways to augment the customer experiences they provide — and the restaurant world is no exception. Food is still important, but it’s no longer the only thing on the menu.

While the hospitality business projects steady growth in the coming years, quick-service and fast-casual establishments, in particular, should become more prevalent. Why? They serve up a pair of Millennial favorites: simplicity and convenience. 

Meanwhile, some restaurants are capitalizing on consumer appetites like novelty and exclusivity. In Upserve’s State of the Restaurant Industry Report, we noticed that menu items containing unique products like jackfruit, mead, or CBD continue to be popular with diners; this reflects the evolving consumer preference for experiences over tastes alone. But when did this shift start, and why?

When ‘Stuff’ Mattered

Growing up, many Millennials’ first notions of capitalism came from media coverage of events like the Enron and Bernie Madoff scandals. Millennials later watched their parents struggle in the aftermath of the Great Recession, and those who went to college often found themselves burdened with debt after graduation. Millennials don’t seem to be averse to spending, but their attitude is more “seize the day” than “seize the stuff.”

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It’s not just a rejection of materialism that has given rise to the “experience culture.” The proliferation of social media platforms, which took hold when most Millennials were teenagers, has cultivated a desire to share experiences — and most young consumers are willing to spend money on experiences worth sharing. 

Fortunately for the restaurant industry, those experiences often include eating out and traveling. When younger consumers debate travel destinations, they think about their Instagram followers. The same thing applies when it’s time to choose somewhere to eat. Millennials don’t make their selection based on the food alone — they look at reviews, they talk to their friends, and they look at pictures. In fact, 65 percent of Millennials use social media reviews and conversations to make dining decisions, according to the professional agency Youth and Young Adult Connection.

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A restaurant’s signature truffle fries might be incredible, but consumers care about the dining environment perhaps even more. This is evidenced by the fact that one of their favorite places to take pictures in a restaurant isn’t the table or booth — it’s the bathroom. Some restaurants are renovating their bathrooms specifically for this reason, and Eater has even compiled a list of where the best toilet ‘grams can be found in major American cities.

Delivering an Unforgettable Experience

If you want to offer an unforgettable experience to diners, you can do more than add a chandelier over your commode. Every aspect of the dining experience should tie back to your restaurant’s story — your food is more than just food, and it should give diners something to talk about. Here are a few concrete ways to deliver a memorable experience:

1. Highlight the Story

Millennials are much more concerned with the story behind their products than their parents and grandparents were. In the age of globalization, they have a new awareness of how those products reach them.

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Modern consumers want to know the origins of your stromboli recipe. They’re curious about how you decided to open a Greek restaurant in a Vietnamese neighborhood. They appreciate the fact that you tell them where their fish was caught.

Diners today don’t have to look hard to find interesting food experiences, which is why your story can be a differentiator. Your story adds to the flavor of the food you serve, so share it — whether that’s on social media, on your menu, or on a chalkboard outside your kitchen.

2. Make it Worth Talking About

When people eat Boston’s best ice cream or stumble across San Antonio’s tastiest tortillas, they talk about it — and social media has only amplified the impact of their reviews. They share their experience not just for their satisfaction but also as a way to contribute to their networks.

Be responsive to the feedback your customers provide, and try to engage with them through whatever platforms you can. Their opinions may only be opinions, but you can bet they will share those thoughts with other customers. Try to make that a good thing for your business.

3. Focus on Sustainability

The rise of “conscious capitalism” and heightened awareness about the impact humans have on the natural environment has made sustainability one of the most important issues of the Millennial generation. Eco-friendly cars, reusable shopping bags, and paper straws aren’t just popping up by coincidence; they are the result of increasing consumer demand for products that minimize environmental harm.

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Modern consumers demand the same thing when it comes to food. Locally sourced ingredients may be more expensive for you to obtain, but your consumers are willing to spend more to eat them — 73 percent of Millennials are willing to pay more for sustainable goods, according to a Nielsen survey. Look for ways to make your supply chain more efficient and more sustainable; and when you make progress, talk about it! Your customers aren’t asking for perfection, but they will reward you for transparency.

Focus on the three areas above, and continuously seek ways to evolve. Not every new initiative will appeal to your customers, but innovation and creativity are paramount in the modern food industry. The work of a restaurateur is never easy, but it’s the experience that counts.

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