Reporter's Notebook

The forgotten generation?

This is part of Nation Restaurant News' special coverage of the 2012 MUFSO conference, taking place Sept. 30-Oct. 2 at the Hilton Anatole Hotel in Dallas. Follow coverage of the event on's ‘At the Show’ section, read onsite blogs from NRN editors at Reporter’s Notebook, and Tweet with us using #MUFSO.

In the restaurant industry's quest to capture that all-important Millennial consumer, brand marketers have worked very hard to think like their target audience, either by becoming Instagram afficionados or including "fresh" or "real" and other descriptors of healthfulness on the menu. But, according to NPD Group vice president Warren Solochek, restaurants are acting like young consumers in another, more detrimental way: tuning out their parents.

"In general," Solochek said during the "Consumer Trends & Implications for Foodservice" panel during MUFSO's Sunday session, "most chains are targeting a younger demographic. They're using social media, and if you look at people who are in television advertising, they to be a lot younger. And with the exception of very few chains, they tend to ignore older consumers, and I think that's a mistake."

He added that consumers between the ages of 50 and 64 have become bigger per-capita restaurant consumers since the start of the recession about five years ago — including 21 billion restaurant visits and $156 billion spent last year alone. Why? Follow the money. Far fewer of those older restaurant guests are dealing with the unemployment and underemployment that have put the brakes on Millennials' restaurant spending.

Baby boomers are also picking up the slack for Millennials by letting their adult children move back in with them when bad job prospects force these un- or underemployed people back to their childhood bedrooms. Often, the boomer parents are then paying for dinner when everyone is out at the restaurant, or they are indirectly funding restaurant purchases by back-stopping their kids as they're out and about looking for work.

Yes, that prized 18-to-34-year-old male is still everywhere in the foodservice industry, driving your investment in social media, starring in your television commercials, infrequently visiting your bar and dining room, or perhaps even covering the latest news out of MUFSO (hi!). But if he's there with Mom and Dad, he's not the one paying.

Fellow panelist Dennis Lombardi put it well, and graphically, when he said the baby boomers used to be the big "pig going through the snake," and now that group and their Millennial kids are two pigs winding their way through. The transition period where both groups have outsized clout and influence in the restaurant industry would probably last another 10 to 15 years, Lombardi said, "so you really got to make sure you don't evolve too fast away from the boomers to embrace the Millennials, and you don't want to alienate the Millennials."

"Any restaurant that focuses in on a very specific demographic and niche is really limiting the amount of appeal they're going to have," Solochek said. "The reason why I say don't forget about the 50-to-64-year-olds is, we won't be around as long as the younger generation, but right now we're spending a lot of money in restaurants."

He clarified after the session that the big bar-and-grill chains in casual dining — not the upscale-casual or steakhouse chains like Ruth's Chris and the like — were most guilty of overlooking older consumers, which was most evident in their advertising.

"Look at the people always portrayed in those ads: It's no one over the age of 40," he said. "The only place I noticed, was Olive Garden for a while ran some ads where a girl and her parents are getting together for the visit at college. That was the right positioning, because you have a multigenerational scene, but the rest of the time a lot of the brands forget about it. They have their heaviest-user profile wrong.

"Expand your horizon. You can't ignore people, otherwise you're stuck with 18-to-24-year-olds, and they have no money!"

Find more MUFSO 2012 coverage online at NRN's sister publications, Restaurant Hospitality and Food Management.

Contact Mark Brandau at [email protected].
Follow him on Twitter: @Mark_from_NRN

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