Enter Gen Z: The new disruptors of food culture

Toss out the rules. Set aside well-worn beliefs. Make room for the new kids on the block. Millennials may be the prized target of the moment for marketers, but Gen Z is not-so-silently waiting in the wings, poised to make their own mark and blaze their own trail in contemporary lifestyles and food culture.

For some time now, we’ve been documenting the transformation of food culture and how the macro factors have combined to create a modern food culture that is marked by fragmentation — a blurring of boundaries, an upending of rituals and the deconstruction of formerly idealized traditions. Gen Z is growing up and coming of age in this era of disruption and upending of tradition. They have the keys to changing their lives and getting to a better place.

Already at about a quarter of the US population, Gen Z is projected to eclipse millennials in size. Yet sheer size alone is not the only determinant that distinguishes Gen Z from other generations. While there are already many predictions out there as to how this youngest generation of the U.S. will act, here’s what we know now about this generation that is poised to disrupt the food and beverage marketplace.

While many industry analysts and pundits have surmised that Gen Zs will be an enhanced version of millennials, our new Gen Z 2018 report finds that currently they look quite different from millennials, who are looking for quality cues, transparency and sustainability credentials, simple ingredients, nutrient density, and new and exciting flavor experiences.

As a large and influential cohort, Gen Z are both the most ethnically diverse and technologically connected generation in US history. Socially, with the oldest just entering their 20s, Gen Z are young and still working out their priorities, but as a group they tend to be politically engaged, highly aware of current events, fearful of debt, and practical, with a realistic vision of the future.

Gen Z are also unique in their intense, intuitive engagement with technology. They are the first generation to be post-TV (in its traditional, live sense), and they are true social media natives. Their access to technology and information is unprecedented, making their worlds much broader much earlier than previous generations.

In their approaches to cooking and eating, we find that until they graduate high school, Gen Z rely on the adults in their lives to provide them with foods and beverages. Most teens rely on their parents to stock the pantry and cook meals, but as they age, they progressively take on more responsibility for feeding themselves from what parents provide.

After high school, many teens branch out from their “childish” tastes and begin experimenting with cooking and different cuisines in earnest. Gen Z’s preference for familiar tastes may be driven by life stage — the older the teen, the more likely they are to enjoy bold and unfamiliar flavors. More like millennials, older Gen Z consumers have developed a taste for unique or spicy flavors, local and premium foods, and a wider range of international foods.

The percentage enjoying plant-based meals nearly doubles from junior high students to high school grads, (perhaps as Gen Z learns more about alternative proteins), pointing to continued growth for the plant-based trend. They also feel a greater sense of responsibility for their own lives, including managing both food budgets and healthy eating.

When it comes to cooking, Gen Z feel empowered to experiment in the kitchen…when they want to.

What’s different for today’s teens is the amount of information, entertainment and instruction available about food and cooking, much of it geared specifically to teens. This abundance of information means that teens, even those who don’t cook currently, feel like they “could cook if they wanted to.” The result is that cooking is no longer a feminine task that one must learn from Mom. Anyone can do it.

When choosing where to get their food and beverages, retailer or restaurant, Gen Z weigh price, location, experience and quality. For both, price and location are typically primary considerations, since teens have limited funds and transportation options. Eating at home, or food from home, is usually the default, since teens don’t have to buy it or cook it.

When it comes to groceries, teens don’t really begin to think about shopping until after high school, when they begin doing more of it for themselves. This means that most don’t have well-developed personal opinions about brands, retailers or channels, or purchasing criteria yet. At the moment, Gen Z are fairly brand-agnostic, except for a few iconic brands (like Oreos).

As potentials disruptors of the food and beverage industry raised in the era of social media, it’s probably no surprise that online shopping and delivery is going to play a major role in Gen Z’s future food-sourcing habits. Online grocery and restaurant delivery will compete for many more of Gen Z’s at-home eating occasions relative to previous generations. With easy delivery at home, when Gen Z ventures out, to shop or to dine out, it will be on their terms, such as when they want a specific type of experience.

As CEO of The Hartman Group, Demeritt drives the vision, strategy, operations and results-oriented culture for the company's associates as The Hartman Group furthers its offerings of tactical thinking, consumer and market intelligence, cultural competency and innovative intellectual capital to a global marketplace.

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