How millennials are reshaping the restaurant industry

Millennials spend more on dining out than any other demographic, to the tune of $92 billion in 2016. That number is only expected to grow as their earnings increase.

So it’s no surprise that millennial tastes are reshaping restaurants, from the food they serve to the way it’s ordered. That means food trending toward natural, organic, and plant-based. Some 40 percent of millennials are reportedly taking on a plant-based diet.

While millennials eat out, they also like to order in, prompting technological changes in how restaurants take orders, accept payments, and design their websites and mobile apps.

Restaurants’ ability to meet new preferences and expectations in the last year has had a significant effect on their ACSI scores. After a drop last year, full-service restaurants rose 3.8 percent to 81. Fast food edged up 1.3 percent to 80.

But where the improvements—and the need for improvement—are most obvious is in the ACSI scores for every element of customer satisfaction.

What restaurants are getting right?

Full-service, sit-down restaurants have improved across nearly all aspects of the customer experience.

Food order accuracy remains a strong point with a score of 89, up 2 percent year over year. Restaurant staff are more courteous and helpful—another 2 percent gain to 87.

Food quality (up 4 percent to 87) and food variety (up 4 percent to 86) show strong gains in areas that cater to millennial preferences for fresh, quality ingredients and customization. Beverage quality (86) and variety (83) are also much improved this year.

Full-service restaurant layout and cleanliness rates well at 86 and continues to exceed the fast food industry (84).

Fast food restaurants are right behind the full-service category in highly accurate order fulfillment, rising 1 percent year over year to 88. It remains by far the top-rated aspect of the fast food experience. Staff do a good job of serving customers (85) and food quality rose 1 percent to 85.

The element that improves the most is also the fast food industry’s reason for being: speed of check-out or delivery. Service speed is up 2 percent to 84.

Where restaurants have room to improve

Food-to-table service from full-service restaurants is quicker (up 2 percent to 83), but lags fast food check-out and delivery speed (84).

The only element to weaken for the full-service category is website satisfaction (83). This should alarm restaurants as online ordering continues to gain traction with customers and off-premise dining becomes more critical for boosting sales.

Unlike the full-service segment, fast food beverage quality has not improved (84) and beverage variety is somewhat lacking (79 compared to 83 for full service). Food variety is at the lower end of the spectrum, steady at 81. Fast food website satisfaction, unchanged at 82, is close to that of full-service restaurants (83).

Restaurants that are getting it right

Among both full-service and fast-food restaurants, several brands improved significantly over the last year. That can be attributed at least in part to the various improvements they undertook, many of which cater to millennial tastes.

Red Robin jumped 8 percent to an ACSI score of 79. In the last year, it rolled out a veggie burger. It tested a new delivery-only concept that operates without a traditional storefront in downtown Chicago. It embraced digital ordering, allowing customers to place orders with a specific pick-up time, prepay, and customize burgers just as they would at a physical Red Robin location.

TGI Friday’s, up 4 percent year over year to a score of 79, is taking delivery to a new level by delivering alcohol as well as food—a new concept for restaurants. It also partnered with Beyond Meat to offer its plant-based Beyond Burger. It has invested heavily in technology, from Alexa skills to virtual bartenders.

On the fast food side, Pizza Hut, which jumped 5 percent to a score of 80, is also testing beer and wine delivery, and might soon deliver pizzas with autonomous delivery trucks. It also rolled out a new loyalty program that rewards online orders.

Millennials have been blamed for ruining everything from running to napkins. Their preferences are certainly reshaping industries. But, at least in the case of restaurants, their desire for choice and customization; fresh, quality ingredients; and a better ordering experience on websites and mobile apps is moving both full-service and fast food restaurants in a positive direction.