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Foodservice designers have it tough these days. Not only have they had to cater to the largest group of restaurant diners ever–Baby Boomers, but they now need to design for the next, even larger generations of customers–Millennials and the up-and-coming group of diners–Gen Zers (21 years old and younger).

It’s a diverse landscape to say the least. The Millennial generation alone spans adults aged 22 to 37, and this group includes both recent college grads and seasoned professionals. Though both Millennials and Gen Zers come from the digital age, meaning most have had computers all their lives, the two age groups are at very different places socially, financially and emotionally. Top that off with an aging generation full of more diverse wants and needs and you have a whole bucket of fun times.

Still, a number of dining trends span all three generations, according to Technomic’s 2014 Generational Consumer Trend Report. Everyone seems to want high-quality taste and a wider array of perceived healthy, more wholesome options as well as convenience, customization and quality customer service.

“We’re not really designing for generations as much as we’re designing for the way most people want to eat now,” says Mark Freeman, senior manager of global employee services at Microsoft.

The days of three square meals are over. Food quality simply has to be there. And for many consumers, the dining experience is also as important as the food. Let’s break it down by the ages.


Generation Z makes up 12 percent of the total population, according to Technomic. Many of its members do not know what life was like before the Internet, making it the first truly digital generation, according to Sara Monnette, senior director of consumer insights and innovation, at Technomic. Generation Z is also the most ethnically diverse group surveyed, and its members are more likely to be students, according to U.S. Census data.

Dining and Food Preferences

When choosing a restaurant, Gen Zers place the highest importance on low prices, overall value and convenience. Of all the generations, Gen Zers place the highest priority on fast service, according to Technomic’s latest report. College-aged Gen Zers also eat at all times of the day — and night. And they’re very, very specific about what they want.

“It’s important to have a dining and equipment model that gives you a lot more flexibility to change out the menu and get students in and out faster,” says Carolyn Ruck, principal of Ruck-Shockey Associates.

Ruck should know. Not only has she designed many college and university foodservice serveries, she also has twin boys in college. Her son Joe, a first-year hospitality student at the University of Denver, recently approached the school’s foodservice director about a series of disappointing experiences in the cafeteria. The breaking point came when Joe came back late from a long day of classes and project meetings only to find a limited selection of food in the half-open servery. After he settled on a simple cheeseburger, a staff member said he was out of cheese and refused to add a slice from the back. Joe had to take the cheese from the salad bar; and the burger was cold, bland and poor quality.

“My age group wants the highest-quality food made as natural as possible,” says Joe Ruck, who lost 80 pounds just by “cleaning up” his diet with more wholesome food. That also means GMO-free, seasonal fruits and vegetables from local, sustainable and organic sources. No more canned peaches. No more processed food.

“If you give us a bowl of fresh fruit or Oreos, most of us pick the fruit,” Joe says. “The sun is shining 300 days out of the year, and we want to feel great and not put bad stuff in our bodies.”

Ira Simon, director of foodservice for Sodexo, the management company for the University of Denver, quickly responded to Joe’s complaints. In fact, he appreciated the feedback so much that he appointed Joe Ruck as a school foodservice consultant. Now Joe basically serves as an ambassador for the students with weekly updates and regular meetings about how to improve the food.

“We encourage all our students to get to know the manager at our locations and speak up about what they want, especially those with special diets, and Joe has become a great, vocal advocate for our students,” says Simon, a 38-year veteran of campus foodservice.

Since then, Simon has built up the salad bar to include extra proteins like hard-boiled eggs and beans, a wider variety of cut vegetables, as well as a few pre-made salads like mixed greens with dried cranberries and classic Caesar. Sodexo also now offers more local food options, such as a burger made from local Colorado-raised, antibiotic- and hormone-free, grass-fed meat. The lines for that are out the door.

In addition, Sodexo stepped up its vegan and vegetarian options to include items like sweet-and-sour stir-fried tofu, eggplant parmesan and roasted veggies and hummus–all of which Joe Ruck says are popular. Gluten-free items, pizza included, are clearly marked. Even the beverages are better—from filtered water flavored with fresh lemon and cucumber slices to smoothies and a soy milk station.

In the servery, says Simon, “instead of being so institutional, we’re moving toward smaller presentations and more to-go containers and merchandising.” He adds, “It’s more about the fresh appearance and presentation.”

Students also like to see the culinary team prepare their food. Simon introduced build-your-own omelet and stir-fry stations to accommodate those needs, and he lowered the barriers between the students and the cooks so they can communicate. Stepping up customer service was an important part too: Sodexo now offers $50 gift cards to employees who get to know the most customers.

When it comes to dining preferences, socialization is huge among Gen Zers, according to Technomic. The University of Denver intentionally leaves tables in two- and four-top setups that students can easily move to accommodate larger groups.

Gen Zers also want to see their foodservice operators demonstrate environmental and social awareness. As such, Sodexo remains committed to composting, and has switched to compostable napkins and containers to cut down on waste.