Restaurants and fast-food chains have long chased young patrons, perhaps thinking those with fewer cooking skills would be more likely to eat out, but new data shows it’s older people who are now keeping the food industry afloat.
Market research firm NPD Group Inc. has found that people aged 55 to 64 now eat out more than younger people do, thanks in part to having more discretionary income and a delayed retirement.
Bonnie Riggs, an NPD restaurant industry analyst, said the trend first started in 2007 and has continued as baby boomers increasingly eat out while those aged 18 to 34 continue to cut back.
“Boomers are, right now, basically the backbone of the restaurant industry,” said Riggs. “They’ve been steadily increasing their visits, while since the start of the recession, younger people have cut back by 50 visits per person, which is a lot of lost volume for restaurants.”
In 2007, people aged 50 to 64 ate out at restaurants 215 times a year, on average, and this number increased to 218 times a year in 2012. Meanwhile, people aged 18 to 34 visited a restaurant, on average, 248 times a year in 2007. This figure declined to 199 times in 2012, evidence that the economic downturn has affected the eating habits of younger people.
NPD’s latest data from March 2013 shows that people aged 50 to 64 made 217 visits to restaurants per person annually, while people aged 65-plus made 203 visits.
“Individuals of the age that Baby Boomers are now are typically in their peak earnings years, giving them more disposable income to spend when dining out,” said Annika Stensson, the National Restaurant Association’s senior manager of research communications. “Many are also empty-nesters or have older children, giving them more time to enjoy restaurant experiences, in addition to choosing meal solutions based on convenience.”
Riggs said the trend of older people dining out extends not just to family-style or full-service restaurants, but also to fast food.
“Baby boomers are very heavy users of fast food as well; this is a generation who grew up with fast food,” said Riggs.
The “fast casual” sector, which consists of restaurants like Chipotle, Panera Bread and Five Guys Burgers, where food is ordered at a counter and then brought to a table, has been gaining strength thanks to older patrons.
Boomers are drawn to customer loyalty programs, flexible meal options such as all-day breakfast and fresh, healthy meals at an affordable price, said Riggs.
A venue’s look and feel is another big factor in terms of attracting this demographic. “Ambiance is huge; it’s actually more important than the food these days,” said David Kincheloe, president of the National Restaurant Consultants, a food consulting firm.
Restaurants looking to accommodate older consumers want to provide an environment with comfortable seating and lower noise levels, as well as menus and marketing materials in larger fonts, said Stensson.
“Lighting can also play a role, such as brighter ambient light, extra tableside lighting or backlit electronic menus,” she added.
Certain brands have been particularly successful at marketing themselves to an older demographic.
“Subway has done a great job of marketing themselves as a healthy option for lunch, and a couple of the Italian chains, like Carrabba’s Italian Grill and Romano’s Macaroni Grill, use some older people in their advertisements,” said Kincheloe. “Restaurants can’t discount the baby boomer crowd — it’s huge.”