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Traditional table service versus digitized dining: How different generations define the modern dining experience

Published June 23, 2021

Think the younger generations are the only ones itching to get back out to restaurants? You might be surprised.

Recent PYMNTS research shows the opposite. Almost 70 percent of baby boomers and 60 percent of Gen Xers are most looking forward to getting back to pre-pandemic casual dining. Have millennials and Gen Z fully embraced new ordering technologies and dining habits, while old habits die hard for baby boomers and Gen X?

Restaurants have a lot to gain—both on and offline—by understanding how each generation discovers new restaurants, what their expectations are once they arrive and the significant role technology plays in the post-pandemic dining experience.

Across generations, digital affects how people find new places to eat

Word-of-mouth endorsement from a trusted source is still the top reason people of all ages try new restaurants. The key difference is how heavily they rely on technology for those recommendations. For example, younger generations are more trusting of social media advertising and engagement, while boomers and Gen Xers are skeptical and look to reviews to judge a restaurant before visiting.

Facebook and online reviews for the older consumers

Older generations have developed ways of doing things over the decades that haven’t directly involved technology or digitization. They tend to choose restaurants based on close friends’ suggestions or location convenience. Older consumers still use social media regularly, though.

With nearly 80 percent of boomers and 71 percent of Gen X plugged in regularly, Facebook is the obvious choice for restaurants that want to reach this audience. Reaching them using regular digital advertising isn’t the best option, though. Older consumers are naturally skeptical of digital—it’s an “I don’t fully understand this; therefore, I don’t trust it” kind of thing.

Almost 80 percent of baby boomers frequent Facebook—by far the most of any generation.

Rather than targeting them with ads, focus on building engagement and openness online. Reviews are huge: boomers and Gen Xers spend an average of 13 and 10 minutes, respectively, reading online reviews before deciding whether a business is worth their patronage. Encourage social and Yelp reviews, add your menu to your restaurant’s Google My Business listing and don’t be afraid of the occasional negative review—embracing criticism shows that you’re willing to improve.

All social and digital advertising for millennials and gen z

Gen Z and millennials depend on social media 99 percent more of the time than boomers or Gen X diners when choosing a restaurant. Social channels not only extend the effect of word-of-mouth recommendations to everyone within young consumers’ social networks, but they’re also a haven for advertisements that match their interests.

Restaurants should maintain their online presence—both through paid ads and organic—so they can immerse their followers in the dining experience long before they ever step foot in the door. Say, for example, a restaurant makes regular Instagram posts about new dishes and promotions. The viewer can get an in-depth idea of the atmosphere, food and style to get them excited about visiting, elevating the overall experience. Plus, this type of engagement isn’t off-putting like more sales-focused advertisements can be.

Related: Strategic Ways to Market Your Restaurant to Millennials & Gen Zers

Older generations are typically slower to adopt online food ordering

All generations are using mobile apps to order food—Grubhub, Uber Eats, etc.—especially out of necessity during COVID. But boomers and Gen X have been much slower to increase their use of such digital channels. The difference is in the experience that each generation has been missing most and whether or not technological adoption comes as second nature. 

Baby boomers and Gen X long to return to restaurants, so digital takeout doesn’t sit well

Boomers and Gen X look forward to eating out at restaurants more so than younger consumers—by a landslide. It makes sense, then, that they may resent the fact they’re forced to order food online when they want to enjoy a professionally prepared meal. We’ve all felt that way at one time or another, where “it’s just not the same.”

It’s not that the older generations aren’t accustomed to digital tools, but their sentiment toward ordering online as a singular option is clear in their ordering preferences. Recent PYMNTS data on how each generation increased certain ordering behaviors during COVID showed that:

  • Baby boomers increased mobile order-ahead by just 25.7% and used third-party delivery services just 10.1% more frequently
  • Gen X increased the same behaviors by 39.8% and 29.7%, respectively

Baby boomers and Gen X are much more reluctant to increase food ordering through digital channels.

Instead, older consumers have been opting to cook at home more often—which explains the enormous disparity.

But how can restaurants satisfy these demographics while they wait for doors to open again? DIY restaurant kits—a massive hit in the UK—do just this. They provide consumers with an interactive fine-dining experience that’s in line with safety regulations and avoids the online ordering pitfalls that boomers and Gen X so dread.

Related: Give your consumers the experience they crave even during a pandemic

Millennials’ and Gen Z’s digital instincts cause them to embrace mobile food apps

Digitally native consumers have no qualms about using technology to discover and order from restaurants. Gen Zers use food delivery apps like they’re going out of style—with DoorDash being the preferred brand—and millennials aren’t far behind. 

While Gen X is closer, the same PYMNTS survey showed Gen Z and millennials doubling mobile order-ahead and quadrupling third-party delivery when compared to boomers.

Boomers and Gen X prefer personal interaction; millennials and Gen Z want a more contactless experience

Younger generations recognize technology as a key component of the contactless on-premises dining experience, while older generations typically just expect good old-fashioned food, atmosphere and service.

Consumers 45 years and older enjoy timeless table service where the waitstaff is there to facilitate each stage of the dining experience. A recent survey conducted by QSR magazine revealed that 69 percent of boomers and 67 percent of Gen Xers favor in-person service—preferences that will remain even after the pandemic.

Conversely, the same survey echoed millennials’ and Gen Z’s proclivity to want technology to play a larger role: 43 percent of millennials and 55 percent of Gen Zers want to use at-table tablets or their mobile devices to not only place orders but to make payments as well.

There are similarities in what all generations want when dining on premises, though. Offering customizable meals, catering to those with food sensitivities and creating a well-balanced menu that appeals to organic, health-focused diners are a few ways to make everyone happy.  

Flexibility is the key to giving each generation the dining experience they want

Different generations have different preferences and expectations. The best thing restaurants can do, especially once restrictions ease up and customers head back to restaurants in droves, is to stay flexible and offer exceptional customer service.

Continue to offer in-person service with a smile (while adhering to safety regulations), but enable a digital experience for those that want it. Offer intuitive online ordering, but get creative with how you deliver. Round that off with an engaging online presence for a thrilling dining experience for all ages. Bon appetite!

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