6 ways Gen Z will disrupt dining

Move over, millennials—Gen Z is aging into the dining-out scene, and these kids have some very different tastes and behaviors. The oldest Gen Zers were born in 1998, the same year as Google’s birth. This means they've grown up having endless information at their fingertips, making them more informed, inquisitive consumers.

The oldest Gen Zers also are beginning to enter college, a shift that’s of great interest to the college dining chefs who gathered this week at the University of Massachusetts’ Chef Culinary Conference. Read on to find out what they learned about their newest customers and employees.

Hyper taste buds

assorteed spices

Gen Z boasts a higher proportion of "supertasters" than previous generations, said Dawn Aubrey, associate director of dining services at University of Illinois, speaking on a panel of noncommercial operators. Expect increased demand for ever-bolder, more varied and unusual flavors to please their palates.

Intense connection with food

teens girls burgers

For Gen Z eaters, “Food is play, to be discovered and shared,” said June Jo Lee, VP at the Hartman Group, a research company that studies foodservice trends and insights. The internet and mobile technology have made it possible to “eat from the fringe”—to have access to a whole world of tastes, she said, enabling these young diners to become more engaged with food than their predecessors.

Demographic diversity

asian spring roll vegetables

Almost half—46%—of Gen Zers are nonwhite, noted Lee. Add that statistic to the nearly 1 million international students now in U.S. universities, and college chefs—already skilled at cooking a wide variety of ethnic cuisines—will have to take a deeper dive into authenticity and food culture.

Short attention spans

bored teen salad

Studies show that the attention span of the average Gen Zer is 50% shorter than that of a millennial, said Aubrey. “Don’t let them get bored,” she told the audience. That applies to more than food choices. Signage pointing out allergens, nutrition data, etc. has to be simple and short so the kids pay attention and don’t tune out, said Jeremy Morgan, executive chef at Colorado State University and a panelist at the conference.

‘Show me, don’t tell me’

youtube teen

Student employees make up a good proportion of the college dining staff, and training adjustments are being made to accommodate the new crop of Gen Z students. Instead of weeklong on-site training seminars of the past, “We’re training them with short, two- to five-minute YouTube videos,” said panelist Adam Koerner, assistant director of culinary at Washington State University. Morgan also trains with video vignettes, augmented by brief hands-on sessions led by student managers instead of older staff. 

Activism 2.0

pigs farm

The Gen Z students coming onto campus want to make a positive difference in the world. They grew up caring about animal welfare, sustainability and fair trade, and the panelists agreed that this generation continues to embrace and crusade for these causes and more.


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