In the restaurant business, the conventional wisdom used to be that attracting young adults was the surest road to profit, because people invariably tended to dine out less as they got older. But boomers, an iconoclastic generation that's refuted so many other age stereotypes, are upending the old equation.
A recent study by NPD Group shows that visits to commercial food establishments - both restaurants and " snack" establishments such as coffee shops - by customers 65 and older have grown nearly 8 percent over the past five years, despite rough economic times, while visits by those 55 to 64 have risen slightly. Meanwhile, restaurant traffic from customers between the ages of 18 and 47 has dropped 12 percent. (Visits by younger boomers, ages 48 to 54, have dropped by about 6 percent.)
Bonnie Riggs, NPD's restaurant industry analyst, told the New York Times that the findings contradict longstanding assumptions that boomers would spend less on dining as they got older. "The Boomers happen to be very different than their predecessors," Riggs explained. "They act younger. They eat younger. They want to live forever."
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But that doesn't mean that boomers are willing to eat the same sort of food or go to the same restaurants as teens and twenty-somethings. As the Wall Street Journal reported in 2012, chains such as McDonald's and Chipotle, which target mainly younger diners, have been disappointing investors.
Meanwhile, one of the chains with the strongest growth has been Panera Bread Co., whose restaurants feature both a more varied menu filled with fresh-tasting, vegetable-laden fare and homey, comfortable dining rooms, complete with cushioned booths that are easier on aging tailbones. Panera founder and chief executive Ronald Shaich - at 58, a boomer himself - told the Journal that his restaurant chain is "the prototypical baby boomer concept." Not coincidentally, 41 percent of Panera's customers are age 50 or older, compared with the 30 percent that casual dining establishments typically draw.
Restaurants are seeking to cater to older diners in other ways, too. In Baltimore, for example, some local establishments are providing loaner pairs of reading glasses to boomers who, having forgotten their own glasses, are having difficulty reading the menu.
Photo: Werner Kunz via Flickr
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