Menu Development | By Marc Halperin
The cohort that many demographers and pop-culture mavens have affectionately dubbed “Generation Y”—those born somewhere between 16 and 28 years ago—encompasses millions of educated, opinionated, techno-savvy, fashion-forward arbiters of taste and style.
For makers and marketers of foods designed to be eaten on the go, Generation-Y’ers are a particularly important batch of trend-setters, one whose spending power makes them an important customer segment today and whose longevity will make them an important crowd to court for decades to come.
It’s for these reasons that the Wharf Research Division of the Center for Culinary Development started tracking Gen Y’s food likes, dislikes, passions, preferences, and obsessions about seven years ago. This past February, our most recent quantitative research—a telephone survey of 1,000 young men and women nationwide—uncovered some noteworthy findings with significant implications for quick-serve operators.
On the topic of snacking, which was among our main areas of inquiry most recently, we learned that 27 percent of this demographic consume either a snack or a meal between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. Sixty-three percent, meanwhile, eat either a snack or a meal between 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. You don’t need a firm grasp of higher mathematics to get that this group’s noshing needs represent a sizable business opportunity.
The question for those trying to capture a greater share of Gen Y’s discretionary snack income is, “What factors are driving this group’s snacking behaviors?” A series of focus groups we conducted in the wake of our survey helped throw some light on that issue.
When it comes to taste, anyone who’s seen the overwhelming number of products characterized as “flaming hot,” “super sour,” “extra spicy,” or “tart and tangy” on supermarket shelves in the past decade knows that provocative flavors are very much in favor with consumers under 30. As one of our young participants said, “You want some flavor, something with a zing.” Others described the importance they assign to unusual taste combinations: “[I like] twists on normal things,” one focus-group member said, while another described a gratifying eating experience as something that produces “an adventure in my mouth.”
We expected to hear our participants complement strong and even extreme flavors. What we didn’t expect was the central role that Fun (yes, with a capital “F”) plays in this group’s snack repertoire. Our research revealed five distinctly different features that Gen Y associated with great snacks, and fun is common to each. Among the most frequently cited:
Participation: Whether they’re peeling soybeans or pulling apart sandwich cookies, these consumers like a little action with their edibles. Foods that can be played with, or foods that require a little manual labor, are eminently appealing to those born somewhere between the End of Disco and the End of the Millennium.
Customization: “One size fits all” is no way to approach this group. They’re used to having it their way, every day. They enjoy being able to call their own shots by adding toppings, choosing among different sauces, selecting from a unique variety of spice blends and ethnic flavor profiles, and exercising a little individuality when it comes to snacking.
Visual interest: Simply put, a generation that grew up on products such as yogurt that comes in a tube and processed-fruit snacks molded into the shapes of dinosaurs likes its share of novelty. Intriguing shapes, bright colors, and clever packaging are therefore more than incidental considerations for Gen Y snackers.
Beyond fork, knife, and fingers: Again, bearing in mind that 16-to-28-year-olds are used to having a little fun with their food, when it comes to how snacks are eaten, anything goes. Foods that can be popped, poured, or tossed into one’s mouth—or even sucked through a straw, for that matter—are often more compelling for Gen Y than more traditional alternatives.
Sounds: In keeping with the food-should-be-fun ethos, foods that make a bit of noise are also welcome. Treats that snap, crackle, sizzle, or crunch are typically well-received.
For quick-serves bent on delivering late-night Gen Y-friendly menu items, the options are many and simple to execute.
At the major hamburger chains, it could be as simple as looking at french fries in a slightly new way. Rather than longer strings of fried potato, a McDonald’s or White Castle could consider offering shorter, fatter, barrel-shaped fries that are characterized by their “popability.”
At Pizza Hut or Round Table, late-night snacking might take the form of crunchy, bite-size pizza crisps. These would consist of small shards of ultra thin-crust pizza—featuring the same sorts of toppings available on full-size pies—that have been baked and broken into bits. Alternatively, these chains could try offering miniature calzones that deliver pizza filling packed between two thin layers of dough, similar to super-slim paninis, but completely sealed around the edges.
Finally, Mexican chains could consider tinkering with the basic huarache formula to arrive at a new kind of south-of-the-border snack. The idea would be to put a fresh twist on this sandal-shape, tortilla-based classic by piling traditional Mexican meats, cheeses, chiles, and vegetables on an open-faced oval of dough. The result would be similar to a bite-size, open-face taco, but with the added novelty of the distinctive huarache shape. For a generation that likes its snacks with a little extra kick, it might just be the perfect fit.