Market researchers have plenty of data that describes what Baby Boomers want from their restaurant-going experiences. And they know plenty about what Gen-Xers expect, too. But even the savviest of experts struggles to pin down what exactly it is Millennials desire when they go out to eat. 

Which is why so many studies have been conducted in hopes of unearthing the tastes and trends that most appeal to this group. Millennials are a juicy target; at 90 million people strong, it’s the biggest demographic around. It’s destined to be the next driver of growth for all parts of the food world, including restaurants. Whoever cracks the code on Millennials’ eating preferences stands to make a bundle. 

Previous research provided a handy entry point when the United States Potato Board decided to take its look at Millennials. Consumer research firm the Hartman Group conducted the study on behalf of USPB, and it had plenty of data to mine when conducting the first phase of the inquiry. Its researchers also knew the right questions to ask in phase two, an online study of 2,000 Millennial-aged U.S. consumers. 

The primary focus of “Understanding Millennials” was on how consumers ages 18-30 purchase, prepare and order potatoes (overall, much the same as those in other demographics). But the study also produced a number of interesting factoids about Millennial eating behavior. Restaurant operators may find some or all of these results of interest:

•    55 percent prefer communal tables at restaurants.

•    68 percent ask friends before selecting a restaurant.

•    87 percent will splurge on a nice meal even when money is tight.

•    40 percent will order something different every time they visit a restaurant.

•    Millennials eat out the most frequently at lunch

•    They tend to eat four smaller meals a day at non-traditional times.

•    30 percent eat foods that are certified organic (as compared to 21 percent of Gen X-ers and 15 percent of Boomers).

•    They prefer whole foods over processed food.

•    They will spend more on ethically sourced meats and farm-to-table experiences.

•    80 percent want to know more about how their food is grown.

•    Food companies among Millennials’ top 10 most-trusted brands: Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Ben & Jerry’s, In-N-Out Burger.

•    When shopping in grocery stores, Millennial foodies spend more on premium ingredients and are more likely to opt for small-batch handcrafted beers and artisanal cheeses than the big brand names.

•    Custom food options, such as the 87,000 possible drink combinations that can be had at a single Starbucks unit, are seen as a need, not a luxury. 

•    It’s just not about nutrition for Millennials. They view food as entertainment and self-expression. 

However, affordability is often a concern. When asked what is most important when choosing food in general, the top-scoring attribute was “A good value for the money,” at 36 percent. Good value was also the top-scored when respondent were asked what is more important when choosing food from a restaurant. Thirty-nine percent said value mattered most. 

The bottom line from the USPB report is that “delivering on what the Millennial consumer is looking for in food is no small task.” This group wants meals that are:

•    Fun and exciting...yet natural and unprocessed.

•    Convenient and fast/easy...yet healthy.

•    High quality...yet affordable.

Add it all up and it’s easy to see why fast casual is the lone restaurant industry category showing significant growth. Whether by luck or by design, the fast casual approach delivers many of the key factors Millennials say they want.  

So should your restaurant have a Millennial-specific strategy in place?  Consider this. A 2010 report from Oracle,  focused on the banking sector, estimated that Millennials’ purchasing power will reach $2.45 trillion next year and $3.38 trillion—more than that of the Baby Boomer generation—by 2018. Longer-term, Millennials seem like too big a demographic for restaurants to ignore.