The restaurant customers of tomorrow

Staff Writer
The restaurant customers of tomorrow

Three areas of the population — those older than 55, kids under 11 and Hispanics — offer extensive opportunities for sales growth in restaurants, an expert told attendees at the Research Chefs Association’s 12th annual conference and exposition.

Trend watcher Liz Sloan, president of Escondido, Calif.-based Sloan Trends Inc., said that those demographics are showing growth in per capita spending and the potential for increasing foodservice sales. The Research Chefs Association Annual Conference & Culinology Expo was held this week in San Antonio, Texas.

Older consumers will spend extra for add-ons and are big consumers of desserts, Sloan said. “They are not the most health conscious when they get to restaurants,” she added. “The younger people are.”

While the 18-to-24 age group still spends the highest percentage of income on foodservice, that group is shrinking in size, she said.

Sloan also noted that there is growth being seen in the number of children under age 11, and that the ratio of Hispanic births to non-Hispanic is four-to-one.

Among younger consumers, the top three ethnic cuisines are Italian, Spanish and Thai, which Sloan said is surprising, as many would think the dishes of Mexican and Chinese cuisines would rank.

“We are going to see a lot of changes in this audience,” she said.

In addition, Sloan said, a new eating occasion — “a savoring experience” — is developing among foodies. This more sophisticated experience is defined by “freshness, distinctive flavors and foodie narratives,” she said. The use of descriptions, like Copper River salmon, grape varietals or Meyer lemons, are all examples of this more sophisticated dining experience, Sloan said.

Hear more from Sloan; story continues below

Sloan highlighted other potential areas of growth for restaurants:

Appealing to the solo diner: “Eating alone is at an all-time high,” Sloan said, with nearly half of eating occasions occurring solo. Even in families, kids are fed separately and the adults eat by themselves, she said.

Offering snacks: New and unique flavors help motivate a consumer to buy a snack from a restaurant. About 40 percent of consumers would buy a snack if it featured a new flavor. Snacking is most popular at mid-morning and afternoon.

Providing smaller sizes and dips: Smaller items, such as sliders, continue to be popular, and the consumer has expressed willingness to pay extra for some side items, such as dipping sauces.

Expanding breakfast selections: Consumers are developing what many call a progressive breakfast routine, picking up several items at several places and a specialty coffee or drink. Another breakfast “mega trend,” Sloan added, is high-protein options, which go beyond eggs and include chicken and seafood. Other ideas are parfaits, compotes, yogurt and ethnic dishes.

RELATED: Consumers’ changing breakfast habits favor restaurants

Providing beverage options: The older customer demographic enjoys beverages. “The one thing about this older group going to restaurants is, they drink,” Sloan said. When the kids empty the nest, they party. Besides alcoholic beverages, these consumers are also buying green and black tea, lemonade, raspberry lemonade and soymilk.

Countering new competition: Competitive forces on restaurants are growing, Sloan warned. Convenience stores will be providing more competition for restaurants. A survey of c-store operators published in January projected foodservice as the highest potential for sales growth in the years ahead, with 57 percent of c-store owners citing it as the top segment to improve sales, followed by 12 percent saying home-meal replacement had the greatest potential.

Providing new flavor experiences: Menus have shown “dramatic, dramatic changes in flavor preferences in the United States in the last two years,” Sloan said, with profiles like “fruity” moving up second only to “grilled” among consumer preferences.

Contact Ron Ruggless at
Follow him on Twitter: @RonRuggless