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The Complete Guide To Gen Z In The Restaurant Industry

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Tessa ZuluagaAuthor

Gen Z spends about 11% less time at restaurants compared to other generations, is generally more frugal with money, and often leans towards cooking at home vs. going out. And, many are not necessarily interested in working at restaurants. So how are you supposed to attract, hire, and retain the next generation?

In this ultimate guide, we’ll discuss who Gen Z is and why some of these new trends have emerged. And, we’ll dive into how your restaurant can successfully work to both market to and employ Gen Z.

Who is Gen Z?

First, it’s important to understand the demographics of Generation Z. Gen Zers have specific tastes when it comes to food service, and most of it has to do with their lifestyle choices. Read on to learn about how old Gen Z is and what their characteristics are.

How old is Gen Z?

Generation Z, or “Gen Z” ranges in age from about 13-25 years old. This is a wide enough range to place them into different categories, as the younger generation has different preferences than the 20-year-olds. These categories include middle schoolers, high schoolers, college students, and post-grad Gen Zers.

It’s important to note this range because there are many notable differences between these ages. For example, where a Gen Zer was in their life when Covid-19 brought it to a halt impacts both their purchasing patterns and employment preferences, as The Culinary Edge’s 2023 National Restaurant Association Show presentation outlined. If you look at an average 23-year-old, they most likely have watched their parents be careful with money for most of their lives. They remember the 2008 market crash, the years of struggle to follow, and are now trying to get jobs today in a post-pandemic world. Today, they’re more cautious with their money and typically spend it in places other than restaurants.

What are some characteristics of Gen Z?

Gen Z is mostly tech-savvy, chronically online, and hard-working. According to a presentation given at The National Restaurant Show in 2023 by CocaCola, 46.5% of working Gen Z employees have at least 1.5 jobs, if not 2. Therefore, Gen Z customers are more likely to choose menu items that they can enjoy conveniently on the go.

Their on-the-go lifestyle also affects their social media preferences. They enjoy quicker, shorter content on TikTok or Instagram Reels that will sustain a shorter attention span. They also trust organic content more than paid and appreciate authenticity.

This new generation also has a more well-rounded concept of health. For example, millennials or Gen X members typically think of “health” as the shape you’re in, physically. Whereas how Gen Z sees it, “health” encompasses wellness, mental health, and nutrition. They choose restaurants that care about sustainability and use locally sourced ingredients.

So how does this impact marketing to Gen Z?

How to market to Gen Z  

Depending on your restaurant concept, you might want to consider having a marketing strategy that reaches Gen Z. Here are some of Gen Z’s favorite restaurants, and how you can use the same strategies to market to them as well.

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Gen Z’s favorite restaurants

According to Piper Sandler’s recent study, Chick-fil-A is Gen Z’s favorite fast food restaurant. This can mostly be attributed to Chick-fil-A’s stellar customer service, as customers reported 95% customer satisfaction with the fast food spot.

However, Gen Z customers also enjoy when the drink is the main event of their meal, as Starbucks was listed as their second favorite restaurant. Call them “beverage girlies” but sometimes they’d rather enjoy some snacks and a drink as opposed to a sit-down meal. In fact, according to The Culinary Edge, 40% of Gen Z say they prefer several small snack meals to 3 big meals.

How to market to Gen Z

Keeping the information above in mind, note that 60% of Gen Z use Instagram to discover new brands, products, and services. However, they also like to spend their money in places other than restaurants. Millennials have always enjoyed dining experiences – like hybrid dining concepts such as Top Golf. Whereas Gen Zers care more about materials than experience. In order to market to Gen Z, you have to view your menu items as products and determine what would make them choose yours. This is where modern marketing tactics such as influencer marketing and product star power come into play.

Influencer Marketing: Gen Z spends countless hours on their smartphones watching users their age recommend products, recipes, and restaurants. This generation is attracted to authenticity. They’d rather hear reviews on social media platforms from someone they relate to, as opposed to hearing it from a regular commercial or paid advertisement. When it comes to Generation Z, organic marketing is always going to be your safest bet.

Influencer marketing doesn’t mean you have to hire Emma Chamberlain to promote your restaurant. Instead, you can use a micro-influencer (someone local to your town) to reach the Gen Zers in your area code. This doesn’t have to cost you big time – offer micro-influencers free food in exchange for Instagram posts or stories. And remember – a sponsored post of your brand is good, but a sponsored post of one of your menu items, specifically, is better.

Productization: Determine what your “star” menu item is, and brainstorm how you can market it to Gen Z. Think of Dunkin’s “Charli” drink, or Taco Bell’s Mexican Pizza. Why did they sell so well with this generation? The “Charli”, named after influencer Charli D’Amelio, is a cold brew with milk and caramel – nothing groundbreaking. But, the generation viewed this coffee as a product that they needed to buy, and so they did. On the day that the drink arrived, D’Amelio triggered a 57% increase in daily app downloads.

Instagram: If you’re not interested in the world of influencer marketing – we don’t blame you. However, it’s crucial to still meet your Gen Z guests where they spend most of their time: Instagram. Gen Z’s humor is notoriously unserious, and you have more room to be witty in your posts. For a great example, check out Cava’s Instagram – it’s definitely run by a Gen Zer. They also love contests and giveaways. If you have the time, interact with your followers in the comments – Gen Z loves active restaurant accounts.

Drop culture: Your restaurant marketing plan also doesn’t have to be largely planned out. Gen Z has become accustomed to “drop culture”. For example, Beyonce “dropped” an album with zero notice and they loved it. Announcing something the day of excites this generation – use that to your advantage.

Decide what your “star” menu item is and start marketing it as a product today to increase Gen Z foot traffic in your restaurant. Social media marketing is here to stay, especially with this generation. Your Gen Z guests are using social media and so should you.

Gen Z restaurant preferences 

Modern restaurant technology: Unlike baby boomers and Gen X, Gen Z is open to new technologies for speed and convenience. They don’t mind self-ordering kiosks or mobile order & pay options. In fact, they prefer it. If you think about it, Gen Z is used to getting products, meals, or anything from a complex chain. They order everything they need on Amazon and don’t worry about how it gets to their doorstep.

Sweetgreen is a great example in the food industry that has taken advantage of this outlook. Sweetgreen might make salads, but at the end of the day, they’re a logistics company. Their app gives users discovery, and ordering power and then it’s followed by the process of production, delivery, and consumption. They have Sweetgreen Outposts located in the type of offices Gen Z would want to work in, so they can order it through the app and have it delivered to their office at lunchtime. The logistics behind this process aren’t necessarily important to Gen Z; they like the ease and convenience.

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Quality food: This generation also prioritizes value. They care about high-quality products that have longevity. This is important to consider when creating your online ordering and delivery menus, as they don’t want something that’s going to arrive at their door soggy, or cold. For more information on how to create an online ordering and delivery menu that travels well, check out this article.

Sharable: Gen Z doesn’t just buy products – they also wear and share them. In the early 2000s, a green Starbucks cup was more of a streetwear accessory than it was a morning cup of coffee. Don’t know what I’m talking about? Check out this article for reference. Your restaurant brand matters and if they can post pictures of your brand on social, they will. Consider an aesthetically pleasing interior, a recognizable logo, or attractive to-go packaging.

Switch up your arm candy: Crumbl, a cookie bakery, releases new flavors for their delectable cookies every week. Seems like a cool idea, right? There are TikTok accounts by Gen Zers that are dedicated just to trying the flavors each week. The younger generations love this concept of something new and only available for a limited time. Try switching things up in your restaurant like offering limited-time cocktail specials or desserts. When Gen Z sees these on Instagram they’re more inclined to come into your restaurant, giving you the opportunity to make them a repeat visitor.

Loyalty programs: Loyalty programs are a major theme in the restaurant industry right now, even for Gen Z. According to the Keynote presentation given at The National Restaurant Show 2023, 57% of consumers are more likely to visit a restaurant that offers a loyalty program. This may include punch cards, QR codes, memberships on apps, and more. However you do it, just make sure you have a loyalty program to attract all customers – especially Gen Z.

How to retain Gen Z as employees

Now that we’ve established ways to attract Gen Z guests to your restaurant, let’s discuss how to employ them – or how to get them to actually want to work for you. The fact of the matter is that Gen Z is generally less interested in working in restaurants than any previous generation. However, as we talked about above, they’re working multiple jobs.

This new generation doesn’t like to work “just to make money”. They are attracted to jobs that they’ll enjoy – jobs that their friends are working too. They want to work for businesses that care about the environment, their employees, and new technology. 

Here’s a look at how to retain Gen Z as employees.

Gen Z’s favorite restaurants to work at

Gen Z loves working at Dutch Bros, a drive-through coffee chain located primarily on the West Coast. These stands are small and experience extremely high volume every morning. Why would young adults want to work here? Dutch Bros cares about the local community, their employees, and modern restaurant technology.

Dutch Bros is committed to creating a better future for each of their employees, customers, and communities. Dutch Bros has a phenomenal corporate culture, they take new employee training off-site and let their employees play their own music in the stands. They care about their employees and are wildly unserious. 

They also offer a loyalty program on their Dutch Bros app, give out free stickers on the first of every month, and use handheld restaurant technology to make lines move faster. Gen Z is attracted to the work environment at Dutch Bros because the business cares about them and makes work enjoyable.

How to attract Gen Z to your restaurant 

Good pay and benefits: This one may seem obvious, but Gen Z will not settle for low pay and no benefits. Creating an appealing restaurant employee benefits package is beneficial to both your team and your bottom line. Health insurance benefits should be an option for all full-time employees, but that’s just the start. Offering incentives like free meals during long shifts or discounts when not working goes a long way. Restaurant owners should consider what they can do to make working both enjoyable and fair.

Diversity and inclusion: Diversity is one of the greatest parts of working in a restaurant. You work alongside people of all different ages, backgrounds, and ethnicities. Diversity and inclusion in the work environment is a requirement for many Gen Z employees. The customer experience should be the same for all guests, and so should working in your restaurant. You can read more on how to hire for the future of restaurant people here.

Social responsibility: Gen Z's interest in working for socially responsible restaurants is driven by their recognition of the broader social and environmental challenges facing the world. They see employment as an opportunity to make a positive impact and align their work with their values. Gen Z understands that both their spending power and where they choose to work can impact the world they live in. Make sure your restaurant is contributing to a green culinary landscape in order to attract these employees.

How to keep your Gen Z employees happy

Gen Z is not interested in being overworked and under-appreciated. To keep younger employees happy and engaged, fostering a positive work environment is absolutely essential. Gen Z values a workplace that promotes inclusivity, encourages open communication, and supports their personal growth. Embrace flexibility by creating flexible schedules when possible, as they often prioritize work-life balance.

It’s also important to provide opportunities for skill development and career advancement, as Gen Z is eager to learn and grow in their roles. Additionally, regularly seek feedback and involve them in decision-making processes, ensuring they feel heard and valued. By prioritizing a positive work atmosphere that aligns with their values and needs, you can create a more fulfilling and productive environment for Gen Z employees.

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