Gen Z Prefers Fast-Casuals Over Sit-Down Restaurants

Young adults want customizable menus, value and messaging that reflects their interests.

September 22, 2022

CHICAGO—Older Gen Zs, ages 18-24, in the U.S. prefer to dine out at quick-service restaurants, particularly fast-casual places, according to a new study by NPD Group. The study found that although price matters to this group, their taste preferences and definition of value dictate the type of restaurants they visit.

In the 12 months ended July 2022, Gen Zs made 5 billion restaurant visits, 4.3 billion visits were to quick-service restaurants, and 736 million were to full-service restaurants. Overall quick-service traffic was flat compared to a year ago, while Gen Zs’ fast-casual visits were up 4% in the period compared to a year ago.

Gen Zs favor major fast-casual chains that provide the menu items they want, value for the money and messaging that reflects their interests, like organic foods and sustainability, according to NPD’s study.

When deciding to eat out, Gen Zs choose the food they want before they enter the restaurant. Many are seeking more from their restaurant foods and beverages, including local, low-calorie, organic, sustainable and plant-based options.

Classic menu items like burgers and chicken options that are unique and craveable and can’t be replicated at home appeal to this group. Snack-oriented foods, bottled water and noncarbonated soft drinks are also popular with Gen Zs. Chicken sandwich offerings are essential to Gen Zs, particularly those with value price points or a spicy profile, says NPD.

“Now is the time to reach these young adults as they enter their peak restaurant usage stage,” said David Portalatin, NPD food industry adviser and author of Eating Patterns in America. “Restaurant operators can differentiate their brand with Gen Zs by focusing on creative spins on classic foods, engaging relevant messaging and generating value beyond price.”

QSR Magazine points out that social media has a significant impact on Gen Zers dining preferences, as they often see food trends and restaurant reviews on their feeds.

“They don’t experience a restaurant without their phone—whether it’s to place an order ahead of time, read reviews, make a reservation, split the check or post a post-meal review. Gen Z never experienced the day of walking into a restaurant not knowing what to expect,” writes Kevin Valdez, co-founder of GroupRaise, which organizes restaurant fundraisers for local causes.

Social media can also spread the word of a good restaurant experience quickly—and also a bad one.

“Owners should know that no matter what happens, this group will share on goings with corresponding photos to their massive lists of followers,” writes Valdez.

Fast-casuals laid the foundation to survive and thrive during and after the pandemic by leaning in on the tools that were already part of their business model to effectively reach their customer—think digital ordering, loyalty, pickup and drive-thrus.

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