- Gen Z eats differently to other generations, quick-service restaurant execs say.
- They love spicy food, tend to dine in big groups, and are pulled in by influencer marketing.
- Execs from Chipotle, El Pollo Loco, Panda Express, and more told Insider what defines Gen Z dining.
They even eat differently, too.
They love spicy food, tend to dine in big groups, and are pulled in by influencer marketing, execs at quick-service restaurant chains like Chipotle, Subway, Wendy’s, and El Pollo Loco told Insider.
“I think it’s really important to recognize that Gen Z is emerging,” Laura Dickey, CEO of Dickey’s Barbecue Grill, said. “They are there, they do have disposable income, they’re a really important audience, and they are distinctly different than millennials and Gen X.”
The execs broke down six of the biggest traits defining Gen Z’s dining habits.
Though Gen Zs are still young – they’re generally defined as people born between 1997 and 2012 – the older members of this generation have full-time jobs. With this comes spending power, and a need to budget.
“As more and more Gen Zs enter the workforce, the generation’s spending power is on the rise, but currently they still lean more towards affordable options in restaurants than all other generations,” Fabiola Del Rio, VP of integrated marketing communications at Panda Express, said. “Discounts, specials, and menu prices are strong considerations when treating themselves to fast-casual dining.”
Gen Zers spend most of their disposable income on dining out, according to a report by Morning Consult.
“They tend to be value conscious but not necessarily low spenders,” Dickey said. She added that though Gen Zers don’t order as many desserts, they do splash out on sides and get drinks with their meals.
“I don’t think that they’re worried about money,” Abby Taylor, cofounder and CMO of Playa Bowls, which sells fruit bowls and smoothies, said.
Stephanie Perdue, Chipotle’s VP of brand marketing, said that because Gen Zers are less likely to have financial responsibilities such as mortgages and children, they spend more money when they eat out, including adding extras such as guacamole and queso to their dishes.
Perdue added that Gen Zers come to Chipotle more frequently than other age groups, but that their check sizes are smaller because they’re typically only paying for their own meal.
It’s no surprise that a generation of digital natives loves getting takeout.
Some chains are redesigning their restaurants to adapt to the rise in off-premise consumption, which was accelerated by the pandemic. Wendy’s has opened stores with dedicated parking and pick-up shelves for mobile orders and delivery drivers, Wingstop’s “restaurant of the future” which has no dining area and doesn’t accept cash, and Burger King now has restaurants with conveyor belts that deliver orders to your car.
“I think speed and convenience are paramount to Gen Z. They want things now, meaning whatever easiest order mode they can get their food as quickly as possible, that’s usually what they’re doing,” Andy Rebhun, CEO of El Pollo Loco, said.
Playa Bowls’ Taylor said that even in big cities like New York City where third-party delivery fees are high, Gen Z is still happy to pay extra to get their food delivered “when they want it.”
Because the generation is generally much quicker at adapting to new technology, it’s much more likely to use Subway’s app, too, according to Travis Lowe, the company’s VP of consumer and product insights.
They’re also more likely to order for pickup and collection. “They want very quick, simple, easy, frictionless online ordering, but they will come in in groups to pick it up as much as they will have it delivered,” Dickey said.
But this doesn’t mean that Gen Z never dines out. Instead, they’re more likely to eat in-restaurant as a social occasion with a group of friends, the execs said.
“I think that’s something that’s definitely changed after the pandemic just due to people being a little bit isolated and people really wanting to have that moment of connection, through food,” Rebhun said. Shareable dishes are particularly popular among Gen Zers, a Denny’s spokesperson said.
“Today, hanging out at a restaurant rivals millennials’ penchant for hanging out at the mall as teens,” Morning Consult analysts wrote in a report.
“They are social diners,” Dickey agreed. “They have certainly seemed to come back from the pandemic very strong.”
Young diners don’t tend to eat at regular times, though.
Gen Zers and young millennials are in “life stages where they snack more than eat meals,” Todd Roe, senior director of consumer insights at Wendy’s, said.
“I would say with Gen Z we don’t really see a pattern per se,” El Pollo Loco’s Rebhun said. “It’s usually: ‘When it’s most convenient for me.’ They will eat whenever they can fit it into their schedule.”
Gen Z also tends to spend longer at the table, he added. “Sometimes people would normally multitask, but we definitely see those individuals really trying to take that time and eat,” he said.
The Denny’s spokesperson said Gen Zers are most likely to visit its restaurants late at night, making up one in every three guests during that part of the day. Dickey, in contrast, said that Gen Zers were more likely to eat an early dinner at Dickey’s at around 5 or 6 p.m., which she said was more similar to boomers than to millennials or Gen Xers.
Peter Cade/Getty Images
Gen Z has a reputation of being rude, entitled, and brattish. Playa Bowls’ Taylor said that though among Gen Zers there was an attitude of “I want what I want now,” they’re still patient and compassionate towards workers.
Dickey said that Dickey’s got “very few complaints” from Gen Zers. “That is much more likely to be an older generation guest.”
She added that Gen Zers were more likely to share positive experiences about the brand online, including photos of their food, group selfies, and videos of them unboxing orders across Instagram and TikTok.
“I think if there’s something that goes really well, they’ll be the first to highlight it and try to get people to jump on the bandwagon,” Rebhun said. “They’re also those who you wanna respond to very quickly if something doesn’t go well.”
Gen Z diners like their food to be “Instagrammable,” the execs said.
“It is very important for them that they eat with their phone,” Dickey said.
Restaurant chains are making sure both their meals and restaurant interiors look as attractive as possible so that younger generations post about their visits online.
But as well as organic content, restaurants are paying influencers to advertise their products. It’s paying off, they say.
Rebhun said that El Pollo Loco’s work with influencers “without a doubt” drove customers to the brand. He said that when the chain launched its shredded beef birria in spring 2022, it heavily promoted the dish on social media and got influencers to share it on TikTok.
“That was the day where the world changed for us,” Rebhun said. “And pretty much overnight our shredded beef birra sales multiplied by eight times. I truly believe it was TikTok and our passionate fan base that really helped carry that product for us.”
Rebhun said that El Pollo Loco only worked with influencers who are “fans of the brand” and wouldn’t hop between different restaurants. The chain puts most of its social-media funds behind Instagram and TikTok campaigns, he said.
“Facebook tends to have the most users in terms of followers because I think that platform has been around the longest … but I’d say overall in terms of where we get the most engagement and where we see the most growth is Instagram and TikTok.”
Dickey said that Dickey’s work with influencers – in particular those involved with food and sport – was “directly in response to millennial and Gen Z.”
“Any lingering traditional media that we do,” like TV commercials, radio spots, and out-of-home ads, is “all for boomers and Gen X,” she added.
Chipotle’s Perdue, meanwhile, said that Gen Zers “enjoy trying TikTok menu hacks and influencing food culture,” prompting the chain to start selling the Fajita Quesadilla inspired by reviews posted on TikTok by influencers Alexis Frost and Keith Lee.
“We noticed massive fanfare around the viral hack and partnered with the creators to officially add the Fajita Quesadilla to our menus for our Gen Z superfans,” Perdue said.
Gen Z prefers different flavors to other generations. In particular, they like to make their dishes spicy.
“Spice levels generally heat up with younger generations,” Panda Express’ Del Rio said, making dishes such as its Kung Pao Chicken and Sizzling Shrimp popular among Gen Zers.
Chipotle’s Perdue said that Gen Z ordered more of its Queso Blanco, a cheese dip with peppers for a spicy kick, than other generations, while Todd Roe, senior director of consumer insights at Wendy’s, told Insider that its Spicy Chicken Nuggets were especially popular among Gen Zers. Subway is offering more spicy options to appeal to Gen Zers, Lowe said.
Dickey’s has also tweaked its menu in response to younger diners. “They overwhelmingly order chicken,” Dickey said. “So while we’ve always had it on the menu, it hasn’t always been a feature focus. We’ve also added smoked chicken wings, and that was a direct response to Gen Z.” In a 2022 poll by Morning Consult, 13% of 1,000 US Gen Z respondents said that chicken was their favorite food, ahead of steak, burgers, sushi, and fries and behind only pizza.
In addition, Gen Z likes to embrace individualism with customizable dishes as well as trying things that seem novel or exclusive.
“Younger generations in general value new flavors and novelty menu items, particularly food they may not make at home,” Panda Express’ Del Rio said. She said this had included the chain’s plant-based Orange Chicken, Orange Chicken Sandwich, and Panda Bing wrap.
At Wendy’s, Gen Z is more likely to prefer specialty drinks like iced coffee and craft lemonades over traditional beverages, Roe said.
Data from Morning Consult shows that Gen Z is considerably more likely than other generations to try new foods and beverages.
“As members of the most diverse generation of Americans, with more channels of exposure to global trends and more ways to purchase increasingly niche products, Gen Zers’ penchant for trying new foods and beverages, whether it’s through buzzworthy mashups or novel functional benefits, seems likely to last a lifetime,” Morning Consult’s Emily Moquin wrote in the report.
Taylor said that at Gen Z customers embraced the customizable nature of Playa Bowls’ dishes. A core part of Starbucks’ strategy is customers’ ability to personalize their drinks, and TikTok has created demand for lattes and Frappuccinos with long lists of modifications.
Health is also an important consideration, the execs said. Gen Z “grew up with a deeper understanding of nutrition,” Chipotle’s Perdue said.
“They prioritize their health. They put that first,” Playa Bowls’ Taylor said. “They’re willing to spend the money to get quality ingredients … They definitely are in tune with what they’re putting in their bodies.”