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.

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.

Suthers isn’t the only one implementing restaurant trends in the school setting. Micheline Piekarski, director of food & nutrition services for Oak Park & River Forest High School, in Illinois, says, “I am in a suburban, affluent area and my students hit trendy restaurants all the time. So in turn I have to keep up with new menu items that they are experiencing.”

That isn’t always an easy task, however. “Some of these items and flavors will not meet the new government standards,” she says. “They are either too high in sodium and fat or not whole grain. An example is sushi. I took it off the menu because the rice is not whole grain.”

Piekarski does have Olé, a station set up like Chipotle, that helps her meet her students’ demand for customization and trendy menu items. “I have always kept up with what the fast food restaurants are doing,” she says. “I have always felt that the fast food restaurants are our best advertisers.”

That notion is something Billy Reid, director of child nutrition services at Salida Union School District, in California, echoes. “Whenever a mass media blast for a certain product is saturated through various media, I take full advantage,” Reid says. “If a certain fast food company is advertising its chicken sandwich of the week, I make a better version and it usually sells out. I replace the buns with whole-grain buns and use low-fat cheese, and mine still usually looks like theirs. They pay for the advertising to my students and I reap the benefits of it.”

Another influencer is the great baby sitter—television. From watching the Food Network, Gen Zers have grown up learning about ethnic foods. “Students love ethnic and finger dipping-type foods. They are very open to new and different foods if introduced through taste testing. They love taste testing,” says Leah Schmidt, director of nutrition services at Hickman Mills C-1 School District, in Kansas City, Mo. Some of Schmidt’s best-sellers are a Cuban sandwich and a Southwest chicken wrap.

“All things Oriental/Chinese and spicy and hot,” is how Michael Rosenberger, director of food and nutrition services for the Irving Independent School District, in Texas, describes his students’ favorites. “They are the most sophisticated customers we’ve ever had. They eat out frequently, they know good food and service and have high expectations.”

All that knowledge, however, doesn’t change one truth for children’s dining preferences, no matter when they were born: “The most popular items are pizza, chicken nuggets, burgers. Always have been, always will be,” Reid says.

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Born 1981-1994

Defining characteristics

  • Less religiously affiliated and aren't in a hurry to marry and have kids
  • Cellphones and social networking always have been a regular part of their lives
  • They're educated, but struggle financially because of the economy—many still live with their parents
  • Half identify as political independents, more than any other generation

Our student customers are looking for ‘what they want, when they want it and where they want it,’” says Julaine Kiehn, director of campus dining services at the University of Missouri, in Columbia. Lifetime access to information with the simple click of a button has shaped the millennial mind and generated expectations of immediacy, agility and transparency in all that they do—including their eating habits—and dining departments work to meet those demands.

So what are their demands? “It varies by the time of day,” Kiehn says. “Many are looking for a quick meal for breakfast and lunch, and portable, handheld items are in demand. In the evening and late night/early morning, students may be seeking the social outlet, and they want a comfortable environment where they can meet with, study with and/or talk with friends.”

What may be attributed to the influx of food-focused TV, websites and celebrities during recent years, paired with an expectation of transparency, Amy Beckstrom, director of auxiliary and dining services at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and her team “see an impressive number of students that want to know as much as they can about their food. They are embracing dishes that are unique and/or from countries they may not be familiar with. With the popularity of food programs on TV, students this age love to engage with the preparation and community-building that food provides.”

This budding awareness generates the need for universities to continually engage millennial students by keeping food integrity and variety front and center, such as by sharing sourcing information and offering a mix of internationally inspired items. “We are also finding that variety means something different from ‘more,’” Kiehn explains. “It means more of what they want. For example, our Baja Grill residential dining operation has a set menu with a core of perhaps a dozen items. Those dozen items are very popular, and the variety rating is higher there than at our all-you-care-to-eat dining facility that has widely varying menu items.”

Portability and convenience, freshness and flavor, made to order and authenticity, health and sustainability are also priorities for millennials, which is the first generation to experience a high incidence of food allergies. “There has been increasing interest and need around gluten-free conditions, other allergies, vegan and vegetarian dining,” observes Norman Zwagil, resident district manager for Bon Appétit at Goucher College, in Baltimore. “Engaging on these issues and challenges is an ongoing need for companies like ours.”

When it comes to where they like to dine, millennials prefer smaller, more approachable settings rather than large venues. “Our guests tell us that they prefer a location that they can call their own (i.e., it’s located in the same building as their residence) and has a more relaxed, calm environment,” Beckstrom says. “The location that is the newest and largest, with the most bells and whistles, ironically does not score as high as the other locations, with comments about it being ‘too large and busy, serving too many people.’”

The millennial population is also blurring the lines of traditional mealtimes, reaching for food items when their schedules—and their desires—demand. “We have different menus and hours of service in each location,” Kiehn explains. “We make many items to order, we offer late-night and takeout service and we are offering more à la carte versus all-you-care-to-eat services.”

And when things don’t work for millennials, you can expect to hear about it. With their lives intertwined with social media and a world of information at their fingertips, it’s no big deal for them to express their opinions.

“I have seen a consistent increase in the level and quality of student advocacy,” Beckstrom says. “In other words, students have become very savvy and professional in how they voice their needs and/or complaints. They often do research and prepare presentations or reports to make their points. They also know that sending a copy to the university president or the chancellor will get attention and help ensure follow-up.”

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Gen X

Born 1965-1980

Defining characteristics

  • Children of Reagan era and the divorce boom, they're distrustful of institutions
  • Skew conservative when it comes to economic issues but are social liberals
  • More comfortable than boomers with America's increasing racial diversity
  • More pessimistic than boomers and millennials that they'll have enough money for retirement

Sandwiched between the large baby boomer and millennial populations, Gen X is less easy to define. With total population figures paling in comparison to those of boomers and millennials, combined with a shorter span of calculation—just 16 years while other generations span about 20 years—the generation has less of a voice. As one-third of today’s workforce, however, this group can’t be overlooked.

Their priorities remain similar to millennials in that they’re looking for healthy, convenient options, when and how they want them. But with a few adult years under their belts, and not quite old enough to be set in their ways, Gen X has watched the food industry change and evolve just as they have. They grew up on packaged and processed fad foods and super sizes. Now, facing their own health concerns as well as accommodating their children’s food allergies, they’re just as likely to rally for awareness of food sourcing as they are to reminisce about when no one knew what trans fats were. Food as an experience, ethnic flavors, stealth health and nutritional information are among the norms for Gen X.

Within the non-commercial industry a large portion of this generation is found in corporate cafeterias as they serve in more senior level positions. And like commercial restaurants, corporate cafeterias are charged with serving a variety of healthful items and comfort food favorites in order to appeal to multiple generations, making choice the staple of an operation’s menu. “We have requests from across the board,” says Christine Rankin, corporate services manager at Hallmark, “from the trendiest items of gluten free, diet conscious, vegan, vegetarian, salad bar but also traditional items like fried chicken, pizza and panini sandwiches.”

Leveraging the food education his guests have acquired from commercial restaurants and grocery stores, menu diversity is essential for Iraj Fernando, executive chef and manager with Southern Foodservice Management at Bosch, in Broadview, Ill. “Keeping the menu interesting, that is your selling point,” he says. “When you put the menus together [and put] the right food into the menu, that’s how you attract people to this day.”

Hospitals also are evolving to meet these diverse needs. “They want more diversity, more ethnic foods, more healthy items,” observes Susan Glessner, director of food and nutrition services at UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside, in Pittsburgh. “We have a section of the cafeteria where we can do features like a pasta bar, noodle bowls, sushi day and other ethnic items.”

But as many Gen Xers are caring for their young families, and even for aging older adult family members, convenience remains a priority, as does customization. “We think that the younger folks are more interested in fast service, grab and go so that they can get back to work and/or eat and meet at the same time,” Rankin observes.

Robert Gebhardt, manager of dining and conference services at a pharmaceutical company in New Jersey finds that, “The popularity of chains like Chipotle has had a huge impact on operations. Customers want a quick service option that still provides the customization of each meal.”

Health and wellness is also front and center for Gen X. With employer-instituted wellness programs almost commonplace, the generation is health-minded both at work and in their daily lives. “We think that there is much more focus on health and on diet than there used to be,” Rankin says. “We really try to cover all the bases [on the menu] so that folks can pick and choose on a daily basis. They may be careful one day and splurge the next.”

“Generally our younger customers want lighter, healthier and quicker foods,” explains Michael Atanasio, manager of food & nutrition and patient transportation at Overlook Hospital, in Summit, N. J. “Whether that’s in the form of grab and go or not, they don’t want to wait. So we’ve boosted the items on our salad bar so they get more variety and more of the things they are looking for.”

Baby Boomers

Born 1946-1964

Defining characteristics

  • Value teamwork, relationship-building
  • Work ethic measured in hours, rather than productivity
  • Value success and purchase products and services to display that
  • Tend to be active in social causes

There is a dichotomy among this generation, according to operators, between boomers who are working and those who are retired. When you speak with directors who serve boomers as employees, they paint a picture of boomers as traditionalists. Directors in senior living environments such as continuing care communities, however, see boomers as adventurous diners who embrace change.

“In our hospitals, boomers are looking for hearty, comfort food,” says Overlook’s Atanasio. “Our loaded baked potato bar is popular. We do a meatloaf special where we grill the slices before serving that they really like. Combo dishes and stews are really big, and hot dogs just fly out of here when we offer them.”

Dawn Cascio, R.D. director of Valley Dining at The Valley Hospital, in Ridgewood, N.J., agrees. “Our younger employees really like more ethnically diverse menu items,” Cascio says. “Our older employees, when we’re serving something like kimchi or a [Cuban] pork sandwich, ask, ‘Why have all this crazy food?’”

As a result, Cascio’s department tries to create comfort foods that have healthier nutritionals. “Our most popular items on our menu are chicken pot pie, which we make from scratch [to control nutritionals] and a honey peach barbecued chicken with fresh-roasted summer corn and a housemade creamy cole slaw,” she says. “They’re healthier but also traditional. But really, most of our older folks really just want that roast turkey and mashed potatoes.”

UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside’s Glessner notes, “Boomers want value for their dollar and want brand recognition. For them, our most popular stations are the traditional grill and entrée stations, the salad bar and the make-your-own sandwich station.”

But boomers in a retirement setting seem to be a different breed altogether.

“The boomers living here have a diverse spectrum of palates,” says Virginia Ohanian, director of culinary and nutrition services for St. Andrews Estates North, in Boca Raton, Fla. “They are very well traveled and more knowledgeable about food because of that. They like smaller portions. They want healthier foods. They like foods that are more regional, sustainably and locally grown. When they do want comfort foods, they want it to be a good, high-quality recipe. They want less fried foods and more that are baked or steamed, with fresh herbs instead of salt for seasoning.”

John Andrews, director of culinary for Ohio Presbyterian Retirement Services (OPRS), in Columbus, says that with boomers, his venues take their cues from the commercial sector.

“Our younger residents have done more traveling and they are used to going out to restaurants more, and that’s who we’re competing against,” Andrews explains.  “They are looking for more upscale items and more things cooked to order.”

To adapt to the desires of boomers, OPRS has begun adding mini kitchens to newer facilities, where specialty items can be made. “We still have the main kitchen, which is providing those homestyle favorites, those popular items,” he says. “The mini kitchens are where we can offer an à la carte menu. It’s an efficient model for us.”

Robert Darrah, director of dining services for Legacy Retirement Communities, in Lincoln, Neb., agrees with Andrews. “[Boomers] are looking for fresh, made-from-scratch entrées. They also like to see the well-decorated plate. They want things to look like they do on the Food Network.”

Boomers in senior living communities also like to eat later than their Silent Generation counterparts, and they prefer their dining to be more casual. One way Darrah is trying to accommodate them is by converting the 60-seat pubs in each location to casual restaurants.

“In the next three months we will be rolling out a casual option there because these residents are telling us they don’t always want to come down and go through a whole five-course meal. They want a hamburger and fries or a flatbread pizza. The demand is there for a second option.”

The Silent Generation

Born 1925-1945

Defining characteristics

  • The Great Depression helped shape their values
  • Value financial security
  • Follow traditional family values
  • Prefer things simple

Two words that best describe what Silent Generation diners expect are simple and traditional. Foodservice directors in senior living facilities say these residents expect very basic meals and tend to gravitate to the same kind of foods they’ve always eaten.

“Our older residents want simple foods like macaroni and cheese, stewed tomatoes, meatloaf, stews and the like,” says St. Andrews Estates’ Ohanian.

Legacy Retirement Communities’ Darrah agrees. “We have a lot of meat-and-potatoes people,” Darrah says. “They don’t want to waste anything. They don’t want you to overfill their plates. They want just enough to get by.”

Andrews, of Ohio Presbyterian Retirement Services, notes that with other generations foodservice directors might be competing with fast food or even fine-dining restaurants, “With this older group, we’re competing against what they’ve been used to their whole lives. They really do want things more basic. They want what we call on our menus ‘homestyle favorites.’”

At the same time, however, this generation is living longer than the previous group, the GI Generation. With that comes some health concerns, says Mary Cooley, director of nutrition services at Pennswood Village, in Newtown, Pa. For many of her residents, comfort foods also need to be healthful.

“Our older residents are very interested in how the food is sourced, more from nutritional content than anything,” Cooley explains. “They want to remain healthy. They don’t view themselves as old. They do everything they can to maintain their energy level. So more of them look for lower sodium, lower fat foods. Gluten free also has become an issue.”

For the most part, change doesn’t seem to come easily to the Silent Generation.

“I get a lot of pushback [from this group] when I try to introduce new menu items,” Darrah says. “I recently put a strawberry chicken salad with fresh-baked banana nut muffin on the menu, and they completely pushed back from that, wanting to know what it was. Now, it was opposite a hot beef sandwich with mashed potatoes and gravy. That’s the entrée they went with.”

That resistance to change extends to the service portion, as well. These oldest adults like to eat early and most prefer a more formal setting.

“When I started here residents all ate at a structured time,” Ohanian recalls. “The tables were formally set and there was a dress code. It was very formal, very structured.” As younger residents moved in, asking for more casual dining, “we had some real die-hard Silent Generation people who didn’t want to see this ‘decline,’ as they saw it, in the quality or style of service.”

Ohanian’s solution was to set up a formal and a casual section in the dining rooms. Even that, she admits, “took us a while to implement.”

Cooley and Andrews say technology is another area where they have gotten grief from the Silents. “When we wanted to change our point-of-sale system, the older residents said, ‘What do I need that for,’” Andrews recalls. “Now, we need to update our technology for our younger residents because it’s the technology that’s going to drive us and make us successful. So it’s kind of a balancing act.”

Cooley experienced a similar reaction a few years ago when she wanted to introduce a flex dining program. The department ultimately decided to blend flex and traditional dining into a new program that satisfied older and younger residents.

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