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Getting social

Communal tables and shareable small plates may have spawned the social dining trend, but today’s customers want more. Gen Y—aka the Millennials—are leading the charge. And they spend a lot more of their disposable income on dining out than other generations.

“When this group goes out to restaurants they’re in ‘hangout mode;’ they meet up to eat and drink continuously over several hours, looking to explore different tastes and sometimes moving to different venues,” reports Craig LaRosa, principal with Continuum, a design and innovation firm that consults with foodservice clients. “They are looking to spend money on the ‘experience.’”

Continuum conducted in-depth ethnographic research with Gen Y diners, accompanying them to restaurants and studying their behavior. These are some of the insights that emerged:

  • Social diners want the ability to create the meal they want, big or small, complete or pieced together. It’s not about the traditional three-course dinner; it’s about having choices
  • Flexible menus with many small plates and appetizer options are welcome. But you can’t fool Gen Y—they want authentic, honest food prepared with a unique point of view
  • Spaces with tables that allow for a variety of seating options and configurations—including communal seating—are popular, as are open kitchens and large bars
  • Chain restaurants shouldn’t feel like chains. LaRosa cites Bertucci’s as a chain that’s embraced social dining with its new offshoot—Two Ovens—launching this fall. Fresh, authentic food is cooked in brick ovens in front of guests and tables can share pizzas, growlers of beer or carafes of wine and feel comfortable hanging out.

The social dining mindset doesn’t change much as Millennials age, La Rosa notes. Even Gen X and Boomers are looking for a social experience, sharing plates and pitchers of cocktails. The difference—they’re more apt to socialize in smaller groups with people they know.