Which flavor is your customer?

From kindergarten students to seniors in a retirement home, non-commercial operators have five generations—spanning nearly a century—of customers to cater to.

lollipops

From advances in technology to sustainability and an explosion in food knowledge, consumers in each generation are looking for different menus and service styles in their dining experiences—and non-commercial operators are finding ways to meet those customer service demands across all ages. 


Gen Z

Born after 1994

Defining characteristics

  • Highly connected to the use of communications
  • Like instant gratification
  • Independent
  • Very open book with little concern for privacy

Influence. That’s the common theme when talking about the dining preferences of Generation Z customers, the vast majority of whom are in K-12 schools. For those younger Gen Zers who haven’t come into their own when it comes to making decisions, parents are the main influence. For older consumers, media and restaurants are the driving forces.

“There is a lot of parental involvement,” is how Ruth Arnold, operations manager with Nutri-Serve Food Management for nine districts in New Jersey, describes her current crop of student customers. “There are a lot of emails from parents asking ‘how healthy is this’ to ‘what about allergies’ and ‘my kid doesn’t eat a certain product, what are you going to do about that?’” 

Mary Anderson, supervisor of Culinary Express at Wayzata Public Schools, in Minnesota, agrees. “With parents, it’s a phenomenon,” she says. “You would think that their child is the only one in a district of 11,000. We’re getting, ‘what can you customize to my child?’”

K-12 directors find that in order to meet the demands of their younger Gen Z customers, they actually have to come to terms with millennial desires, which are characterized by college directors as being, I want it my way and I want it now (read more about millennials below).

Much like their millennial and Gen X parents, older Gen Zers want customization. Thanks to the Chipotles of the world, these consumers expect choice. “Our students love the customization they are familiar with due to their exposure to restaurants such as Subway and Chipotle,” says Serena Suthers, R.D., director of school food & nutrition services for Prince William County Schools, in Manassas, Va. “To keep our high school menus interesting we have introduced the Build Your Tray, Your Way Line to give them the opportunity to customize their meals.”

The line rotates on a daily basis with items such as build-your-own sandwiches, burritos, Asian rice or lo mein bowls and pasta meals.

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