Interview: Anne McBride on Millennial Eating Habits

Posted in Interviews on February 5, 2013

Anne E. McBride is the director of the Experimental Cuisine Collective at New York University, where she is also pursuing a PhD in food studies, and culinary program and editorial director for the Strategic Initiatives Group at the Culinary Institute of America. She has co-authored four books with culinary professionals, including Chocolate Epiphany with François Payard and the recently released Les Petits Macarons with Kathryn Gordon. McBride’s latest research focuses on the eating habits of the millennial generation–described below– and how their preferences and expectations are changing the way the food industry runs. Her keen observations will be insightful to anyone working in the food world today.


To start, can you briefly explain the demographics of the millennial generation?
The millennial generation typically refers to people born between the early 1980s and early 2000s. They are between their teens and very early thirties, very racially and ethnically diverse. It’s the first generation to come of age in the new millennium, so they are also very technologically savvy.


Broadly speaking, how would you describe the eating habits of the millennial generation?
It’s the first generation in the US that has grown up eating a wide variety of cuisines on a daily basis—Thai one night, burgers the next, Mexican after that, sushi, regional Italian, Indian, the list goes on and has only continued to expand in recent years. Their parents, the baby boomers, consciously chose to eat a particular cuisine, which might have been for a special occasion and with which they might not have been very familiar. For millennials culinary diversity has been part of their repertoire from birth, and is very much part of their every day. They expect “authentic” versions of the cuisines, which they might be familiar with through travels around the world but also to the ethnic neighborhoods of their cities, but don’t necessarily shy from modern, urban adaptations like those of chefs like David Chang or Danny Bowien. They don’t much like fussy food or what they might consider their parents’ version of a fancy restaurant, but they have no problem eating an elaborate avant-garde tasting menu either—it just has to match their aesthetics and their requirement for transparency. They also came of age with America’s “foodie” culture, from the Food Network to Top Chef to blogs centering around what one’s eating. They request transparency from food companies on their sustainability practices, for example, like to know where their food comes from, want to make sure they are not eating fish from an overfished species, and might prefer local producers.


How have the eating habits of this generation changed or affected the restaurant industry? Can you give any specific situations or examples?
Because they grew up with such wide access to world cuisines and types of restaurants, millennials are not loyal to particular concepts or cuisines. They want variety, but those choices have to be carefully curated, in a sense. They are not looking for menus that feature spring rolls next to idlis, for example, but rather look for an Indian or Thai restaurant that has a selection of dishes that solidly reflects the cuisine of a particular region. They don’t want to feel like they are one in a million, so are looking for unique, customized, exclusive (supper clubs, for example) experiences, which is particularly a challenge for companies that have relied on replicable models for growth. They also have high expectations of restaurants and food companies, from the quality of ingredients used to the dishes’ flavor profiles, and are forcing restaurants to be more transparent. They are educated and make educated purchasing decisions. They use social media broadly, which is where companies often go to engage them—millennials have different customer service expectations, transforming that into more of a dialogue between provider and customer, it seems, on different platforms. They grew up in a chef culture, so are very supportive of chef-driven restaurants, but because so much of that culture is celebrity driven, might not remain loyal to one for very long, and also support chefs who align with their own interest, be they aesthetic or environmental, for example.


How can chefs and restaurateurs makes their business appealing to this audience? 
What seems very popular right now with that generation—think of places like Mission Chinese Food, Pok Pok, Torrisi, or Roberta’s, for example—is to not look like you’re trying too hard. The concepts and the food have to be pretty effortless and appear very unique, whether they are or not. Restaurants must “feel” like the place where they are, so someone eating in New York should have a sense of the city in the food, energy, and aesthetic that would be completely different if the restaurant were in San Francisco—even if it is owned by the same people. Great food is absolutely key, even, or especially, when it is very simple; it’s easy to forget that and to think that millennials only go to a place because it has a certain vibe, but that’s certainly not the case of the “foodie” millennial. Restaurants should also not be afraid to challenge their customers: these are diners who have traveled and don’t necessarily want a milder, “western” version of a particular cuisine when eating it in the US, or who watch a lot of food television and might have taken cooking classes so will ask lots of questions. At the fine dining level, it seems that a very strong philosophy and driving narrative very much appeal to millennials, who want just the right balance of nature and technology so that they are challenged but feel that the chefs’ ethos matches theirs, for example: Atera or wd~50 in New York, Saison or Coi in San Francisco are great examples of that balance and are places where millennials spend money. Generally, and even with fine dining, having a casual vibe is appealing, to create a space where diners don’t feel like they have to whisper or show up in a suit to enjoy great food; millennials want to be comfortable and are generally much less formal.


[Photo: Mission Chinese Food. Image via]