Millennials changed foodservice. Now their kids are doing the same

By Mark Jachecki

Millennials are entering parenthood, and not surprisingly, their kids are picking up on their food savvy, creating an increasingly important family demographic in commercial foodservice in Canada. Brands have noticed, too. Operators and chains that didn’t offer kids’ menus previously, like Tim Hortons, have recently rolled out menus intended to appeal to Millennial parents’ notions of healthy eating, convenience and kids’ satisfaction. Newer, health-focused chains like Copper Branch are capitalizing on the market as well. There’s plenty of money to be made.

First, the numbers. The Millennial family demographic represents 131 million visits annually, growing on average by 12 per cent since 2014 along with driving $901 million in sales, growing on average by 16 per cent — that’s more people spending more money. Traffic and dollar growth in commercial foodservice generally is flat. Gen X, for example, still drives more overall traffic and dollars (164 million visits and $1.3 billion respectively), but it’s stagnant, showing a loss of one per cent CAGR since 2014.

Overall, parents tend to over-index their kids-like-it-there motivation for visiting a restaurant on surveys. Millennial parents, by contrast, under-index it, balancing their kids’ preferences with other factors when making their decision. For example, compared to Gen X parents, Millennial parents are more likely to visit operators they regularly go to and that are budget friendly and actively seek out specific menu items.

Winning With Parents and Their Kids

Needless to say, when it comes to winning with this new cohort of parents, brands must take several factors into consideration. Millennial parents have less time than previous cohorts. According to NPD data, they spend close to half the time preparing meals versus Gen X and are more likely to purchase home-meal replacements or subscribe to a meal-kit delivery service. When it comes to out-of-home meals, they’re more likely to seek out restaurants that offer drive-thru, take-out and delivery options. Millennial parents make up 37 per cent of all digital orders, with the vast majority being for delivery. Operators need to think about how they’re making the purchase process as frictionless as possible. Millennials already skew towards QSRs, and millennial parents are no different. They’re busier than previous generations; they put a premium on convenience and meals are less structured.

Health and food quality are primary concerns, as well, and Millennial parents extend them to what their children eat. The change is reflected in what kids eat and drink at restaurants. Over time, servings of carbonated soft drinks, milk, juice and French fries have trended down, while breakfast sandwiches, bottled water, tap water, home fries and hash browns have become some of the fastest growing items. Another wrinkle: AllerGen, a network of academics studying autoimmune disorders, noted in its 2015 SPAACE survey that 6.9 per cent of children under 18 have an allergy, putting a fine point on the importance of carrying alternatives like dairy-free milk and plant-based proteins. Not having them could be a deal breaker for potential customers. And like their Millennial parents, children typically have more developed palates than children did a generation ago — it’s worth looking considering dishes other than kids’ menu go-tos like grilled cheese sandwiches and chicken strips.

Kids have an influence on where families dine out and as a result operators not only need to provide menu items that kids will love, but also consider how their packaging and in-restaurant environment will drive fun and excitement for this consumer. Concepts like Dave & Busters and Cineplex’s Playdium are good examples of this.

The Future of Food Marketing

In Canada, the federal government has been working for more than a year and a half to develop rules that will restrict food and beverage marketing to children. At the heart of the debate is a Senate bill to amend the Food and Drugs Act introduced in September, 2016, intended to limit unhealthy food and beverage ads aimed at kids. As it stands, some of the limitations being recommended include restrictions on packaging and whether or not toys and books can be included with certain meal items. While the nuances of this bill have yet to be ironed out, one thing appears to be certain — the future of marketing food to kids in Canada will likely be impacted. However, while these changes will undoubtedly have an impact on the Canadian foodservice industry, Millennial parents are already seeking healthier options. Savvy operators will most certainly find new and innovative ways to appeal to Millennial parents and their children before a law forces them to. If they want to keep up, they might have to.

Chef Jachecki is a consultant with the NPD Group and chef professor at Humber College.