How to Sell Food to Millennials (Written by a Millennial)

As time goes on and millennials start making more and more money, it is increasingly important to have the tools and the know-how to sell to this younger generation. Millennials have reached an annual 200 billion dollars of buying power, a number that is steadily on its way towards surpassing baby boomers. Even further, a food institute analysis of data from the US department of Agriculture states that Millennials spend 44% of their food dollars on eating out, which is notably more than previous generations.

Consequently, restaurants are going to need to adapt to this new consumer environment in order to survive and prosper. A millennial myself, I combined my own experiences and other sources to compile a brief list of crucial tips for selling to a millennial crowd.

Environmental Sustainability

One of the biggest differences between millennials and previous generations is the weight they place on social and environmental issues. As a young generation inheriting an imperfect world, we care deeply about issues of environmental sustainability and social equality, and are more than willing give our money to those who share these concerns.

The best way to present your restaurant as environmentally friendly is to actually adopt environmentally friendly practices, and then advertise this to your consumers in a way that doesn’t seem ingenuine. Avoid excessively throwing around words like “green” and “eco-friendly” with little to back it up, as many consumers have wised up to this form of weightless eco-consumerism. Instead, try showing your sustainable habits in practice. For example, a self-busing restaurant or café could have noticeable recycling and compost bins with helpful instructions on what to put in each. Another example is increased transparency, as in having as much information as possible about your food and its source on the menu or available elsewhere. Millennials don’t want you to just tell them how environmentally friendly you are, they want to see it.

Another way to help the environment is by updating your equipment. There are a variety of compostable items that will simultaneously help the environment and be noticed by your customers. You can significantly reduce your energy usage with Energy Star certified equipment or advanced cooking equipment such as a Combi Oven (for more information on Combi Ovens and their many benefits, see my previous post on saving labor). This also has the benefit of saving money on utility costs, as these products ultimately pay for themselves through energy bill savings. Further, certain cleaning supplies have been confirmed to be safer and less harmful on the environment than others by the EPA.

Social Responsibility

In addition to environmental concerns, millennials care deeply about social issues and equality. In the restaurant context, the biggest issue related to this is the question of cultural appropriation. There has been a lot of controversy over white-owned restaurants profiting off of ethnic foods and décor, most notably there was a list of Portland restaurants accused of appropriation that resulted in boycotts and even a place closing down. Regardless of where you stand on the issue, it’s an important thing to consider when trying to sell to millennial buyers.

Millennials like ethnic food, and by no means does this mean you can’t sell any ethnic food if you are not of that ethnicity. It’s a matter of being mindful of your presentation and attitude. A white-owned Mexican food restaurant with a ton of traditional Mexican decor may raise some red flags, whereas a place with contemporary decor that presents its food as a unique American take on Mexican food will likely be in the clear. Listen to your consumers and make sure you are not profiting off of a culture you are not a part of.

Social responsibility can also entail getting involved in the community in a productive way. This can include catering local events, giving out food to the homeless, or working with other local businesses for both charitable and promotional purposes.

Educational Dining and Connoisseurship

Restaurant owners are likely to get a kick out of a sketch from the IFC comedy series Portlandia about how much modern restaurant goers need to know about their food. The sketch features two snobby restaurant goers asking detailed questions about the origins of their meat, followed by the waitress responding with an excessively detailed account of the animal’s life (even including its name and personality). This scene may be comedy, but it strikes a very real chord when it comes to millennial dining habits. Millennials want their dining experience to be educational, they want a story with their meal.

I mentioned earlier that we want transparency, but this means selling products where transparency is actually a selling point. This includes free range and grass-fed meat, local meat and produce, craft beer and wine, and anything where you can tell a story about the food your serving. These products may be more expensive, but if done correctly, the experience your customers get will warrant higher prices. If price is an issue, knowledgeable local craft beer service is a great place to start.

Tied into this is a sense of connoisseurship that comes with consuming high-quality items that you know about. This is especially true of beverages, as craft beer and wine has become increasingly popular with millennials (and just about everyone else!). Having a rotating selection of interesting craft beer and wines will definitely draw millennials to your restaurant. This also leaves a lot of room for creativity. For example, recommending specific beer and wine parings with your menu items, or even including the recommendations on the menu. This is also an opportunity to improve your beverage presentation with specialized glassware for specific wines and beers, something that sets an establishment apart as distinguished and intelligent.

Social Media and Branding

It won’t take much convincing to say that social media is a huge part of the millennial lifestyle. Obviously, it’s important to capitalize on this, but how exactly is the best way of going about this? Restaurant success in this arena generally results from effectively establishing a brand online, with a particular emphasis on the “voice” of a restaurant. Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are the crucial platforms to use. Work with a millennial-aged employee with a good sense of humor and a lot of familiarity with these sites in order to run the pages. The voice of your social media brand should be unique to your restaurant, yet a witty, socially conscience, and welcoming voice is a great place to start.

Restaurant branding can go far beyond the internet. Invest in a food truck and make appearances at local events and music festivals, sell t-shirts, publish a cookbook. These are all great ways to brand your restaurant and make it appealing to millennials.