Figuring Out Gen Y's Eclectic Eating Preferences

GenYTo food and beverage product marketers and restaurant operators focused on attracting Generation Y (born between 1980 and 2000), it shouldn't come as a great surprise that these young people are extremely into health and wellness, customization and global flavors.

But this generation is so complex -- perhaps the most savvy, brand-sensitive consumer group in history -- that understanding the nuances of how they tick is a must, according to the new "How Gen Y Eats Culinary Trend Mapping Report" from the Center for Culinary Development (CCD) and Packaged Facts.

To get a handle on what drives Gen Y's food and beverage preferences, CCD conducted a quantitative online attitude and behavior study and customized focus-group sessions held in living room and restaurant sessions.

The results point to several key attitudes, starting with their penchant for eating and socializing in casual, communal spaces. Gen Y's love hanging out at communal tables in bar lounges, college dining halls and other informal settings. Dining venues that offer a wide collection of foods, particularly with "far-flung global inspiration," are favorites. When they eat alone, they often "scarf solo in the car or on the sofa," adds CCD.

Gen Y is of course wired to the max. These young people are not only hooked on socializing in communities on the Web; they see even eating as "a deeply wired activity." Their markedly social self-identities and need to be constantly entertained drive them to use networking technologies in food-centric ways, "from downloading menus and placing orders to subscribing to wireless recipe and ordering information services," notes CCD. College campuses are the "incubators" of this melding of technology and community.

They are also thrill-seekers who crave heightened eating experiences such as intense flavors and extreme textures. "The typical Gen Y eater swoons over unusual food forms, flavor profiles tweaked with unexpected or dramatic twists and of course, vivid global cuisines, especially when they blend fresh and spicy," the researchers stress.

Other salient F&B drivers include their penchant for customizing foods through adds-ons or mix-ins (the reason they love fajitas and other "build-it-yourself" foods); their dedication to local, organic, fair trade and vegetarian/vegan foods (reflecting their belief that food choices can make a positive difference in the world at large); and their firm belief in the value of health/wellness and functional (including anti-aging) foods and beverages. (Although males under 20, in particular, are also hooked on energy-blast drinks.)

Marketers have opportunities in emerging markets for "all-natural" weight-control foods that help "balance [their] drive-through lifestyles," as well as in anti-aging foods and protein-rich breakfast and snack foods, according to CCD.

Foods and beverages in hip, eco packaging that offer innovative tastes and functionality are irresistibly "kewl" to Gen Y, they add.

Critically, marketing messages must come across as "anything but marketing messages," stress the researchers. This generation wants food and drinks that they can feel "they've stumbled onto themselves or through a peer recommendation, and with more than a whiff of cultish appeal," CCD concludes. While Gen Y's are far from brand-phobic, "the brands have to be the right ones, without the taint of the hard sell."

Restaurant operators would do well to heed advice in the report from executive chef Dwight Collins (who oversees dining at the University of California at Santa Cruz): Pay attention to local sourcing, highlight green initiatives like composting; always find new ways to allow them to customize their food choices; and don't waste your time with generic versions of global cuisines, because they expect authentic regional.

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