Generational Marketing: Everything restaurant operators need to know about their target markets

Americans spend a lot of money in restaurants—$799 billion, to be exact. The challenge for restaurant operations and marketers, however, is how, in an always-competitive environment, to identify and reach your target market.

Marketers rely on generational data to understand and speak to their guests, and restaurant operators use it for a host of decisions, from which menu items to offer to choices about dining room design. Here are some facts and figures that will help you understand and reach Americans of all ages, from teens to seniors.


Baby boomers represent a sizable portion of the economy—and they dine out a lot. Born between 1946 and 1964, this group has the largest spending power of all the generations: $2.3 trillion. These mature adults know what they want and seek out the restaurants that deliver the service and food they are looking for.

The majority of Boomers appreciate having both new and familiar foods to choose from when they dine out, according to Technomic’s Generational Report. Operators can introduce sides with new or unique flavor profiles while offering classic preparations of center-of-the-plate proteins, such as pork porterhouse or beautifully marbled slices of grilled pork loin. A word about dining rooms: More mature diners prefer an atmosphere that is conducive to conversation, so lower the music. Also, strike the right balance between lighting that is low enough to flatter and bright enough to allow mature eyes to easily read the menu.

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While Boomers don’t mind spending, value is important to them. This often results in ordering familiar, “low-risk” menu items. To encourage them to branch out, offer sharable starters and other “small plates” to introduce your more creative items and drive up check averages. As for technology, Boomers might not be Instagramming or Yelping, but they will check out menus online. So, make sure your website is up to date. Also, plenty of Boomers are on Facebook, making this social channel valuable in trying to reach these guests.


They represent just 25 percent of U.S. spending ($125 billion), but this generational middle child (born in the 1960s and 70s) still deserves your marketing attention. These 62 million Americans are in their peak consumption years. With household incomes matching those of the affluent Baby Boomer, this group is willing to splurge, especially on what they perceive as “higher-quality” items. According to Technomic, Gen Xers are receptive to marketing messages that position meals as a way of “treating” themselves.

Gen Xers are attracted to casual formats as well as global fare, in part because this group of Americans is more ethnically diverse than the generation before it. As for their favorite foods, pizza and burgers top the list, as do Mexican, Mediterranean and Asian cuisines. Xers, many of them now in middle age, are also looking for “better-for-you” options, especially in limited-service restaurants. At full-service restaurants, they’re looking for menu variety and customization. According to Technomic, resonant menu buzzwords for this generation are “authentic,” homemade” and “premium."


When they dine in, Gen Xers often want an atmosphere that is upbeat and conducive to large groups. Think communal tables that can seat 12 or more and spaces where big groups won’t disturb more-intimate parties. This generation, characterized by busy two-income households, also relies on takeout and expects their favorite restaurants to make ordering “to-go” easy and convenient. Online ordering, dedicated parking, curbside pickup and home delivery are musts.


Millennials (also known as Generation Y; those born between 1981 and 1996; ages 22 to 37 today) are a crucial demographic for most restaurants. Growing up, eating out wasn’t just for special occasions, it was part of their families’ lifestyles. Millennials are important to marketers and businesses like restaurants because they represent about $200 billion in spending power.

What makes millennials tick? Technology. Raised with cellphones and the web, tech is part of nearly every waking moment for this group. Millennials use social and mobile media to form opinions and make decisions—including where and what to eat. Their connectedness and accessibility through media make them especially attractive customers. Interestingly, and perhaps counterintuitively, millennials’ attachment to technology has bred a greater desire for connectedness to others. This is why they often see dining out as a social event.

Millennials look for lower price points and plenty of choices. They also tend to favor fast food, deli and pizza restaurants over coffee shops, high-end restaurants and casual restaurants. They love to try new foods and flavors, so ethnic restaurants and menu offerings, such as these Korean Style Pork Tacos with Kim Chi Slaw, appeal to this group. How can a business connect with millennials? Through social networking, promotion of your social responsibility and through digitally integrated operations (think promotions like “check-in specials”). Also bring novelty and authenticity into your marketing and give your messaging a personal and casual tone.


Born after 1995, this group—still in their teens and early 20s—spent nearly $80 billion in restaurants last year, despite the fact that the majority of them can’t legally drink. According to analysts at investment firm Piper Jaffray, more than one-fifth of teens’ total budget goes toward food. This is more than they spend on clothing and electronics.

Some food and restaurant marketers have dubbed this cohort—82 million strong—the “no nugget” generation. These influencers know a lot more about food quality and reject the chicken nuggets and other overly processed foods that were accepted by generations before them. Think fresh fruits, whole grains and meats that are responsibly sourced. Still, they are price-conscious, so striking that balance can be difficult for restaurant operations.

It goes without saying that like millennials, technology is integral to the lifestyles of Generation Zers. Restaurants that expect to win their business had better get mobile ordering right and keep connected through creative social media messaging that speaks their language.

Technomic’s College & University Consumer Trend Report offers some additional marketing insight: “Street foods,” (tacos, arepas, grilled cheese, falafel, crepes, churros), bowl foods (risotto, poke, pork ramen) and snacking appeal to Generation Z. In fact, 23 percent say they prefer to build a meal out of appetizers or snack foods than order an entrée. Finally, make sure your presentations look great. This generation has never dined without a phone in hand, so encourage your guests to check in, tag and get posting.

Clemens Food Service provides the products to help you create irresistible and profitable menu items for every generation, as well as the insight to help you reach your target markets. 

At Farm Promise® we’re putting better food within reach for you and your customers. Because we believe good comes from good. It’s deeply ingrained in our values and drives our commitment to delivering no-antibiotics-ever, ethically raised pork from American family farms. That way we can ensure there’s goodness they can taste in every bite.

Topics: Flavor Trends, Farm Promise