Focus on Flavor and Experience: Here are the Top Trends that Appeal to Gen Z Diners

From takeout-only to sidewalk dining, the restaurant industry has had to pivot dramatically this year. That’s led many to adapt not just their operation, but also their menu innovation. The National Peanut Board recently convened its virtual Next Gen Food Summit that brought together chefs, media, and food influencers to discuss the state of the industry and the future of food. What we gleaned from the presentations and discussions is that Gen Z diners are hungry to return to restaurant dining, and operators have an opportunity to woo this generation by focusing on flavors and experiences that appeal to their interests.

Create a Memorable Experience

“If you can pair a good atmosphere with a good product, you’re going to have something that is better than average,” said Lindy Simmons, food photographer and summit panelist. As a Gen Z food influencer, Simmons stresses that she looks for restaurants that have their own creative and unique spin on things. She also looks for a dining experience that fosters the desire for social eating.

Fellow summit panelist and Gen Z chef and cookbook author, Eliana de las Casas, agrees. She says that for next generation diners, “food creates memories. You can bond with people over food and connect with people.”

Both say that they are drawn to restaurants that enhance the overall dining experience, from ambiance to service. And they agree that for a brand to successfully get Gen Z diners in the door, a strong social media presence is critical.

“Before I go to a restaurant or store, I’m going to look at your Instagram every single time,” said Simmons. “And if you don’t have an Instagram, it’s over.” As for other social channels, Simmons also said that “if you want to target Gen Z and you’re not on Tik Tok, I think you’re making a big mistake.”

Beyond having a memorable—and Instagramable—dining experience, Gen Z also expect convenience, but not at the expense of high-quality food and service. Chef Kevin Gillespie, restaurateur and owner of Red Beard Restaurants says that in the wake of the pandemic it’s clear that Gen Z doesn’t believe that takeout should be limited to low end, cheap food. Even high caliber dining establishments should be able to offer a takeout experience that’s on par with in-house dining.

“The Gen Z population is addicted to a certain level of convenience in everything they do,” said Gillespie. “They want the restaurant experience to parallel that.”

But it’s not just the experience that motivates Gen Z, food quality and flavor are key to satisfying the younger generation. Gillespie says that this generation expects dynamic offerings and flavors from different cultures. What they really want to see are menu innovations that marry bold flavors with personal preferences, like healthful foods, plant-based options, and sustainability.

Flavor Innovations For the Win

Foods like peanuts can help bridge that gap. As America’s most popular nut, peanuts can make the exotic familiar and the familiar exotic. They are a staple ingredient in cuisines from around the world, and they provide more plant-based protein per serving than any other nut. They also have a low environmental footprint and are one of the most sustainable foods. Additionally, peanuts have a versatile flavor profile that works in both sweet and savory applications. That’s where peanuts can really lend a hand to menu innovation.

“Flavor is the pulse of the industry,” said Cathy Holley, Editor-in-Chief, Flavor & the Menu. “It’s where chef and menu developers convey their art…without flavor innovation, the industry is at a standstill.”

During her presentation at the summit, Holley called out several food trend predictions for 2021. Among them, bread’s rise in popularity this year will continue as people seek out ultimate comfort foods. For chefs looking for bread innovations, look no further than the retro peanut butter bread that went viral on social earlier this year.

Piggybacking on that trend is an opportunity for sandwich sophistication. There are so many ways to mix up sandwich offerings and play with ingredients and preparation. Consider swapping out ingredients, or modifying texture, like grilling a PB&J. You can also enhance packaging to make it even more takeout friendly.

And the trends aren’t limited to just food. Beverages that are expected to see a bump in popular appeal include plant-based dairy alternatives and Thai iced teas. Holley also says that seltzers will dominate a little while longer. Everything from flavored seltzers to hard seltzers will continue to appeal to a broad swath of consumers, especially Gen Z. But there are opportunities to expand their use in mixology. One example is the combination of a berry-flavored hard seltzer mixed with Skrewball Peanut Butter Whiskey for a familiar take on the PB&J. 

Food innovations that play up flavor and comfort are game changers for restaurants looking to appeal to Gen Z diners. Being able to do that in a format that they feel comfortable accessing the food—from enhanced takeout options, to reduced contact points, and even QR codes for menus—will add to the overall experience that keeps them coming back.

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