Calm down, Generation Xers –– millennials aren't ruining casual dining, though Buffalo Wild Wings CEO Sally Smith would love to differ. Smith made headlines last week as she wrote about the casual dining demise in a letter to shareholders. She blamed declining sales on changing tastes, saying millennials prefer cooking at home, ordering food for delivery or frequenting restaurants that provide quick service. Although she's certainly correct about reasons why casual dining has experienced a popularity decline, blame shouldn't be placed on millennials –– it should be placed on the restaurants that have failed to keep up with changing demand.
In 2016, Buffalo Wild Wings saw a decline in sales. The company that oversees Outback Steakhouses is shutting down dozens of locations, while Ruby Tuesday sells many of its locations during a search for new management. The message is clear: These restaurants just aren't staying popular or reaching new customers. Although CEOs like Smith would love to absolve themselves of responsibility for these failures, lashing out at millennials doesn't solve anything. Millennials, like all generations before, have distinct values and preferences that should be worked into business models if casual dining hopes to succeed in a changing world.
My generation's tastes and habits are partially due to the fact that many of us live in urban areas. As we migrate away from small towns in mass exodus and concentrate our lives near city centers (or easily accessible suburbs), our habits change accordingly. With increased urbanization comes a different set of options: We're able to choose between frequenting chains or local restaurants, sit-down establishments or quick-service alternatives.
Our food preferences look different, too: Food trucks have risen in popularity in the past few years, providing culinary variety at a low price. During a rushed lunch break, it's no surprise that young professionals seek food trucks or that cash-strapped entrepreneurs entering the restaurant industry choose to get their feet wet with mobile ventures. The food truck industry is, as of 2017, about four times as big as it was in 2012, and it shows no signs of slowing down. What started as a quirky money-saving concept has become an important part of the way we eat.
Food trucks are also aligned with our more hedonistic values: 88 percent of millennials surveyed by Technomic claimed they value trying different types of cuisines. Food trucks, along with local establishments, meet these preferences to a greater degree than Applebee's or Buffalo Wild Wings ever have. Although the argument could theoretically be made that Outback Steakhouse caters to those internationally focused values, it's a stretch to claim that the famed Bloomin' Onion is as sought after as dim sum or pho by young people in urban areas.
Millennials just aren't interested –– and that's not necessarily a bad thing.
It's no secret, too, that millennials tend to be more health-conscious than Gen Xers and Baby Boomers. In a 2013 survey by Aetna, 24 percent of millennials surveyed believed "eating right" was an important component of being healthy. Similar percentages endorsed the value of exercise. Gen Xers and Boomers, the very groups that often enjoy shaming millennials, placed much less value on nutrition and exercise.
By every measure, millennials have pretentious food preferences as compared with prior generations. On average, we prefer locally sourced foods. We seek out specialized grocery stores and enjoy fewer packaged foods than ever before. Many young people choose to pay more for food that has a better impact on the environment or on their own health.
Of course, many young people are blind to the many ways that the label "organic" can be distorted or used as a marketing ploy, but that doesn't change the core values at play: We're conscious of what we put into our bodies and how that affects the world around us. Although we mock ourselves with Portlandia sketches, our shifting preferences aren't something to be ashamed of –– prioritizing conscious farming practices creates a better world for all, provided those values aren't forced on others.
Shifts from generation to generation aren't something to be afraid of –– marriage rates and religiosity might be in decline, but prioritization of health is improving. As college costs skyrocket, many millennials are left in the lurch as they take on more debt and find themselves moving back in with their parents.
But other trends exist to combat those fears –– the tiny house movement and recent van life trend both exalt minimalism and low cost of living. It's obvious that my generation values things differently than preceding generations, but when will Gen Xers and Baby Boomers stop griping about us, as if other generations didn't have their own unique growing pains?
Here's a crazy idea: Instead of blaming millennials for the failure of casual dining, we could blame the people who built these dining options but refused to adapt to the preferences of potential consumers. If these restaurants were cheaper, healthier or more aligned with millennials' preferences, they might succeed. If they were placed near city centers, had more delivery or take-out options or cared about conscientious food-sourcing, they might have more appeal.
Don't blame the failure of the Bloomin' Onion on my generation –– blame it on bad analysis of the market and stubborn refusal to change.
Liz Wolfe (@lizzywol) is a writer based in Austin, Texas. She is managing editor of Young Voices.
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