Steal This Idea

Fresh from the National Restaurant Show: 4 restaurant ideas to steal to capture Gen Z diners

Take a page from the "cool kid" restaurant chains on how to attract this young generation of diners.
Panelists at Restaurant Show
Operators from restaurant chains shared the ways they're attracting Gen Z during a panel at the 2024 National Restaurant Association Show. | Photo: Benita Gingerella

Gen Z now makes up about 20% of the U.S. population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. These digital natives have their own expectations when it comes to dining and operators are eager to capture their appetites.

Here are four steal-able ideas restaurants are trying to win over this young generation of eaters that were shared during a panel at the National Restaurant Association Show which takes place May 18-21 in Chicago.

1. Play up current events

Tapping into what Gen Z’ers are talking about online has been one way restaurants are trying to attract younger diners.

For example, in honor of the eclipse that happened across the U.S. last month, Smoothie King, a Dallas-based smoothie chain, reworked one of its existing smoothies into a “Eclipse Berry Bliz Smoothie.”  The menu switch was simple, but effective.

“It really drove a tremendous amount of traffic,” says Smoothie King Chief Marketing Officer Marianne Radley.

Chicken Salad Chick, a fast-casual chicken salad chain with a focus on women's empowerment, has also found success leaning into current trends. For Taylor Swift’s Eras tour, the brand published a series of posts on social media showing which salad on their menu corresponded best to which Taylor Swift album.

“People went crazy, and it really blew up our social media,” says Tom Carr, chief marketing officer for the brand.

2. Offer menu hacks

Since Gen Z loves customization, Chicken Salad Chick has come up with a series of “menu hacks” for diners to try, such as combining different salads together to create new flavor profiles.

In a classic cool move of letting fans be "in the know" or part of a secret club, the brand posts the hacks on social media so they’re under the radar and only known to those who follow them on social.

3. Utilize your data 

Having a hard time figuring out which menu hacks or LTOs would strike a chord for diners? At Bojangles, a fast-casual chicken brand, Chief Marketing Officer Tom Boland looks at data to determine the chain’s next menu move.

For example, after noticing that orders of Bo- Berry Biscuits with a side of sausage spiked during Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays at locations near colleges and universities, Boland asked employees at those units what was going on.

“They're like, ‘Oh, it's the sausage Bo-Berri.’ That's not officially on the menu, but apparently, it's been a menu hack that kind of has been going on for years,” he says.

The hacked menu item, which features a Bo-Berry biscuit sliced in half and stuffed with frosting and a sausage, is now an official limited time offer (LTO).

“We launched this thing two weeks ago and this thing is flying off the shelves,” says Boland.

4. Let your customers do the marketing

Caribou coffee, a coffee chain based out of Minnesota, started its own ambassador program after receiving feedback from customers asking to hear more from their peers.

“We heard a lot from Gen Z, ‘Well, you know, what do my friends think? What are they recommending? I want to hear from them,’” says Chief Brand and Marketing Officer Erin Newkirk.

Diners who sign up to be ambassadors receive things like free gift cards and invites to exclusive tasting events to thank them for their time.

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