“It’s a generation that in many ways is much more demanding with respect to social consciousness,” Goldin says. “They’re concerned with making the world a better, safer, gentler, kinder place. It certainly has implications for how restaurants market, what products they use, and what products they sell.”
Goldin cites Chipotle as a brand that is ahead of the curve on this front, in part because of its commitment to buying humanely raised meat.
“They’ve really hit the mark,” Goldin says. “Their appeal is very Millennial.”
Still, Goldin cautions against exaggeration. Running a business with a conscience can get expensive and, especially after the recession, Millennials aren’t necessarily up for absorbing pass-on costs.
“Working for Planet Smoothie is great because it teaches me how to work with a partner to get the most work done in the least amount of time. It takes a team to get through a line that’s out the door.”
Sam Henderson, 16, Raleigh, North Carolina
“I definitely know that I have a drive to achieve, and I think that goes along with putting a lot of pressure on myself. I would like to eventually start and run my own PR and marketing firm. I’ve put this goal on myself, so I definitely think the pressure is on.”
Alia Chambers, 24, Richmond, Virginia
“No matter who you are or who you choose to be, there are more groups of acceptance and affirmation now than ever before. These groups give people a community to fit in and a way to feel good about themselves.”
Max Tohline, 26, Cincinnati, Ohio
“Let’s not kid ourselves,” he says. “Cheap tacos are still going to drive a lot of occasions.”
While the recession may impact the Millennials’ spending habits, Howe doesn’t expect it to alter their core traits, including their optimism. This is surprising in a cohort experiencing higher-than-average unemployment (16 percent for ages 20–24; 11.5 percent for ages 25–29) and without much hope of doing financially better than their parents.
“The recession leaves their underlying life goals in tact,” Howe says.
The thing for businesses to understand is that those life goals include having a meaningful career. So, as employers, restaurant operators have to offer Millennials more than a stagnant position at the drive-thru window. With their confidence, team spirit, and drive to achieve, they need to feel that they are an integral part of their workplace, not expendable cogs.
“As digital natives, they really come prewired with a different set of expectations,” says Diane Spiegel, who, as CEO of the End Result, has helped several quick serves develop an employee-management strategy. “They are connected into the world in many ways [through the Internet], so even as entry-level employees feel that they have something to contribute.
“It’s not like generations ago, where employees came in as clean slates. They want to be able to share and collaborate.”
While this trait may turn older generations off, Spiegel insists it is positive and urges restaurant operators to make good use of Generation Y’s desire to get involved at work.
“They just come to the workplace with a different set of skills and expectations,” she says. “Harness that. Leverage that. Use that.”
So far, Spiegel says, the restaurant industry as a whole has not done enough to harness the Millennial Generation’s energy and particular skills.
“They’re slow to it,” she says. “Especially with the economic conditions of the last couple of years, they have not been willing to make the investment.”
The risk, Spiegel says, is that another generation may see an entry-level position at a restaurant as a dead-end job, rather than the first step in an exciting career. But if restaurants decide to embrace Millennials at a quicker pace than other segments, the result could be a sea change in an industry notorious for high turnover and poor labor relations.
“If they knew what was down the road for them, in terms of career opportunities and the ability to grow with the company, they would certainly have a lot of loyalty,” Spiegel says.
With the youngest Millennials less than 10 years old, it is not too late for the industry to catch up. But appealing to the country’s largest generation, as consumers and employees, means restaurants embracing the present, anticipating the future, and, in many cases, rejecting the past.
“You have to be willing to do away with yesterday,” NYU’s Igel says.