The digital age continues to impact us in ways never imagined. This has never been more true then for Gen Z. They are the first generation to live their entire lives in the digital ecosystem using their devices for everything from streaming video to digital payments to virtual reality games, research, shopping, and food purchases. Ever influenced by the Influencers, Gen Z will soon overtake Millennials and Baby Boomers regarding their economic strength & power in our society.
Gen Z’s expectation regarding dining out and food consumption generally goes far beyond calorie counts on menus and other attempts restaurant marketers launched in recent years.
It’s not simply the taste and presentation of food that drives Gen Z’s decision-making. The restaurant industry must address its components: environmental impact, social responsibility, nutrition, sustainability, dietary restrictions, and menu customization to engage with Gen Z buyers.
Chris Dull, CEO of Freddy’s Frozen Custard and Steakburgers, answers some questions that address the rising tide of consumers we call Gen Z using innovative strategies, technology, and menu adaptation.
Gary Occhiogrosso: What are some key strategies that fast-casual restaurant brands are employing to attract and retain the Gen Z audience?
Chris Dull: In the past few years, we’ve noticed a consistent trend across Freddy’s network of 470-plus restaurants: the Gen Z audience stands out with their unique preferences and behaviors. With selective restaurant consumption and high spending power, this generation pushes the industry to evolve its practices to resonate with the demographic. Like other brands in the fast-casual sector, this trend has led us to employ several key strategies to attract and retain this group of guests, especially understanding its large influence on the industry. Strategies include enhancing digital platforms for a personalized experience and introducing new restaurant prototypes prioritizing efficiency. An example is our recent unveiling of the newest Freddy’s restaurant design. The prototype includes an optimized kitchen layout to enable each order channel to be as fast as possible without sacrificing the made-to-order quality we pride ourselves on. Its designated digital pickup area also has a custard freezer to quickly access mobile and delivery orders without interfering with the dine-in order queue.
Occhiogrosso: How has the rise of fast-casual dining influenced the preferences and dining habits of Gen Z consumers?
Dull: Across the segment, brands have provided more convenient and flexible dining experiences, aligning with Gen Z’s fast-paced lifestyles. These consumers value customization and options, and fast casual dining has catered to these preferences by offering build-your-own selections, customizable menus, and diverse dietary options. Additionally, the digital engagement strategies employed by fast-casual concepts, including maintaining an active social media presence and seamless online ordering, resonate with the generation’s tech-savvy nature, enabling them to connect, share experiences and engage with brands on their preferred platforms. To align with these evolving trends, we launched our new mobile app last year, and it allows guests to customize orders to their liking and select a convenient pickup time that fits their schedule. This has driven profitability for our franchisees by increasing guest loyalty and attracting new customers from the younger demographic.
Occhiogrosso: How are fast casual restaurants adapting their menus and offerings to cater to this specific demographic’s unique tastes and preferences?
Dull: Brands recognize that this age group seeks variety and customization, so staying agile is essential. To meet these consumer preferences, we offer several limited-time menu items throughout the year, featuring specialty and seasonal ingredients like beer cheeses, hatch green chiles, pretzel buns, cotton candy-topped shakes, and more. By switching up these unique flavors frequently through our LTO program, we can create crave-able and creative options for Gen Z’s adventurous palates. Fast casual brands embrace innovative food trends and incorporate unique, photo-friendly dishes that appeal to Gen Z’s desire for shareable experiences and visually appealing food. It has also been important for brands to offer build-your-own options where customers can personalize their meals by choosing from various ingredients, toppings, and sauces. We have made this level of customization a core part of our ordering process so that guests can make Freddy’s products their own. By adapting their menus to meet these specific preferences, brands are effectively capturing the attention and loyalty of Gen Z.
Occhiogrosso: What role does technology, such as mobile ordering and delivery apps, play in fast casual restaurants’ ability to engage with Gen Z customers?
Dull: There is no question that Gen Z is a digitally native generation, and online capabilities have become increasingly powerful tools that resonate with them. By establishing a solid online presence and creating meaningful digital interactions, including gamification and early product releases, brands can effectively capture the attention and loyalty of this consumer group.
As previously mentioned, Gen Z expects convenience and efficiency in their dining experiences, so mobile ordering apps allow them to easily browse menus, customize their orders, and place orders directly from their smartphones. This streamlines the ordering process and saves time, catering to their preference for speed and convenience. Delivery apps provide an added convenience, allowing guests to order their favorite meals with a few clicks on a smartphone and deliver them to their preferred location within the hour. Nowadays, these apps often offer real-time tracking and notifications, providing transparency and keeping customers informed about their orders.
Occhiogrosso: Why do you believe Gen Z customers care about a brand’s charitable contributions, and how do you see these philanthropic efforts impacting their overall perception and loyalty towards the brands they engage with regularly?
Dull: Gen Z emphasizes a brand’s charitable contributions as it aligns with its values and reflects its commitment to social causes. We’ve developed long-term relationships with two national charity partners that align with our company values: Kids In Need Foundation and Folds of Honor. Through these partnerships, along with the contributions of our franchisees and Guests, we are helping to provide school supplies to underserved communities and scholarships to spouses and children of America’s fallen and disabled service members.
Since inception, we’ve also sought ways to give back to our local communities by helping our guests raise funds for their neighborhood schools, youth athletic teams, and community events through our fundraiser program. When brands actively engage in philanthropic efforts, it enhances Gen Z’s perception of the brand’s authenticity, builds trust, and fosters loyalty as they are more likely to support and advocate for brands that share their values and actively contribute to making a difference.
Occhiogrosso: What types of interactive and immersive dining experiences are fast casual restaurants incorporating to capture the attention of Gen Z customers?
Dull: We understand that Gen Z seeks unique and shareable experiences beyond just the food. Brands like ours have achieved this by featuring interactive elements in their restaurant spaces. At Freddy’s, for example, while our primary focus is producing high-quality food with premium ingredients, we also focus on creating a casual and fun atmosphere that guests want to return to. Across our system, this prioritization has created a clean, family-friendly environment where guests enjoy spending time with friends and loved ones while receiving genuine hospitality from our team members.
It’s also common for Gen Z to interact with brands on social media by sharing photos and videos of their food and dining experience, allowing us as a brand to engage with them further in the comments section and by sharing their posts. In providing crave-able food and welcoming spaces, fast casual restaurants capture Gen Z’s attention and create memorable and shareable moments that resonate with this generation’s desire for unique and visually appealing experiences.
Occhiogrosso: How do customization and personalization impact the Gen Z demographic’s dining choices, and how are fast casual restaurants responding to this demand?
Dull: Gen Z values individuality and options catering to their unique tastes and preferences. They appreciate the ability to personalize their dining experience, allowing them to control what goes into their meals and aligning with their desire for self-expression. Brands are responding to this demand by offering extensive customization options in their menus, including the build-your-own options mentioned before. By offering customization and personalization, we cater to Gen Z’s preferences and create a sense of ownership and satisfaction, ultimately enhancing the dining experience for this demographic.
Occhiogrosso: How do fast-casual restaurants differentiate themselves from fast food chains to attract Gen Z consumers?
Dull: Fast casual brands prioritize quality and freshness using higher-quality ingredients than traditional fast-food chains. At Freddy’s, we take pride in serving made-to-order food with fresh, quality ingredients. Our steakburgers, for example, are made from 100 percent ground beef. Additionally, our frozen custard is freshly churned throughout the day, using premium ingredients and various mix-ins and toppings. This, combined with the other factors mentioned, distinguishes fast-casual brands like ours from fast food chains and has positively impacted attracting and retaining Gen Z consumers.
The increased economic engagement by Gen Z is sure to continue to change the marketing landscape. The challenge remains to see how their behavior will evolve with age and how restaurants will adapt.