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CHEF'S TABLE: Creating the perfect menu for all generations

No matter what age group you belong to, 'I cannot think of a better way to feel connected to others than sharing a meal around a table,' says food columnist
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“Tell me what you eat and I will tell you who you are.” — Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin

I’ve used this proverb in my classes often. It’s always been an excellent way to gain a little knowledge of where a culinary student comes from and how they feel about food.

What’s your favourite meal? Whose cooking do you love the most? If you had to plan a last meal, what would you pick? It can be very telling to hear what inspires our next generation of great chefs.

The French gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin published his celebrated proverb in his classic book Physiology of Taste — “Dis-moi ce que tu manges, je te dirai ce que tu es,” which translates to "tell me what you eat and I will tell you who you are."

I cannot think of a better way to feel connected to others than sharing a meal around a table. There's no better way to wind down from a busy day than enjoying a home-cooked meal around the table with those you love.

As Mr. Brillant-Savarin so eloquently wrote: "The pleasure of the table belongs to all ages, to all conditions, to all countries, and to all areas; it mingles with all other pleasures and remains at last to console us for their departure.”

Today around our tables are three generations that hold the largest share of purchasing power and influence in our industry: Baby-boomers, Generation X and millennials.

It goes with out saying that not every member of a generation thinks and acts the same way, but they do share enough similarities that a savvy restaurateur or operator can get an edge in developing brands, concepts and menus that provide what the customer wants and helps to ensure the future viability of their business. To a restaurant it's important to know just who is sitting around your tables.

So what do you look for in a dining experience?

With generational differences, you first consider what are the primary needs of a restaurant's consumers. These desires are universal, crossing generational divides.

Demographers tell us that these are those wants:

— Affordable prices

— Fresh, high-quality food

— Meals and experiences that are worth the price paid

— Fast or prompt service

— Accurate orders

I would tend to agree. Nothing on that list would strike me as anything other than a reasonable expectation for a consumer. It’s after these universal needs are met is when we start to see some of the differences in expectations between the age groups.

For example...

Baby-boomers (born between 1947 and 1965) — What do they say is most important to those of my parents’ generation?

— Price and value

— Friendly, attentive servers and staff

— Variety of appealing, healthy options

— Gravitate toward full-service restaurants

Sounds like my folks, indeed.

Generation X (born between 1966 and 1976) — This is me! Well, just barley. Purportedly, I am more in tune with the Xennials, or those of us on the cusp between Gen X and the much-maligned “avocado toast-eating” millennials. So what do the studies say I’m looking for?

— Fun, upbeat restaurant atmosphere

— Menu and/or ambience that’s good for groups

— Preferred beverages, including adult beverages

Apparently, we Gen X'ers are in the mid-life phase. That means busy raising families and looking to balance work and life, and who want restaurant environments that are conducive to their kids and friends.

Well again, that kind of sounds like my wife Kim and I. We do love a good brew pub with a solid menu and great craft beer!

And then there are the millennials (born between 1977 and 1992) — Those who have learned the finer points of demography split them into two different age groups, the younger and the older. Each have a few differences, but I digress. For our purposes we can just call them millennials.

So, what is it that this cohort craves? What do they seek out when looking for their next restaurant experience?

— Desire to be able to customize meals

— Group-friendly menu and/or ambience

— Craveable foods and beverages

— New or unique foods and flavours

According to the experts, cultural diversity is one of the most important aspects for millennials. Many have grown up in families that cherished eating home-cooked dishes that reflect their heritage. The millennial group more exposure to different cultures and cuisines.

As a result, they are far more adventurous in food choices, and they view dining as a form of entertainment and part of the entertainment is trying something new.

How do these generational differences play out on our choices and the menu offerings in our local spots? Well, it means new flavours, different dishes and the chance to enjoy tastes from around the world. Food and food experiences that focus on fun, sharing and entertainment.

Even though we all know that not every millennial likes avocado toast, and every boomer is not adverse to trying out that spicy new place down the block, there is something to be said for the power in a good understanding of demographics. Being able to understand who your market is and what they want will always give you the edge in our industry.

So how do you fit in to the generations? I hope you all take a chance and go try something a little outside of the usual. You never know you just might discover who you really are.

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Daniel Clements

About the Author: Daniel Clements

In his bi-weekly Chef's Table column, Daniel will be looking at everything from local crops and trends in the business to seasonal delights and the local restaurant scene
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