Millennials and Casual Dining Chains: What Do They Really Want?

by Andrea Reynolds

The phrase “chain restaurants” is often synonymous with the casual dining sector. You know the type. The chain restaurants that are filled with bunk Americana flair and fully loaded potato skins—it’s the same sector of restaurants that has been losing market share more so than any other sector of the industry. I wondered, “Are (we) millennials, to blame for the slow death of casual chain dining?” And if so, what do we really want in restaurants?

A quick Google search will tell you yes, we are to blame for the decline, but being the curious (read: nosy) person that I am, I wanted to hear from my peers myself. So, I enlisted the help of my colleague and fellow millennial, Dean Jeffery, to tap our social networks and ask what fellow millennials really want in restaurants, specifically chain “sit-down” kind.


Dean posted a few poignant questions on his Facebook while I opted for Instagram Stories. One platform acted as an open forum while the other offered a place for private conversations. We declined to use the polling tools as we wanted to capture qualitative responses.

For the Facebook survey, Dean asked, “What do millennials really want from a chain restaurant? What would make you eat at these places: Design, Natural Ingredients, Locally Sourced Foods, Cocktails, Take-out/Delivery Options, Speed of Service/Self Service, Weekly Specials or anything else you can dream of!”

For the Instagram Stories, I asked, “What matters to you when in comes to restaurants? Design, food, sourcing, location, price? Tell me why your favorite and most frequented restaurants are your favorite and most frequented?”


We received a total of 44 unique responses. Most surprisingly, we didn’t get a few bullet points—we got an outpouring of direct responses brimming with specificity and detail. 

“I haven’t stepped into a chain restaurant since the early 2000’s. Nothing about them is appealing to me.

“Chains are often sterile and unwelcoming IMO.

What’s more striking is that instead of focusing on what they do like in sit-down dining experience, their answers detailed what millennials don’t like about casual chain restaurants. Some of the responses were quite terse, seemingly giving up on this sector of the restaurant industry:

“I would rather spend my money supporting local businesses and food. I feel like chain restaurants don’t use fresh ingredients like local restaurants do. Also-I feel like the ambiance at smaller places is more enjoyable ”

“If you’ve been to one, you’ve been to them all. Definitely would appreciate some effort to make quality food and a better/more memorable experience.”

"Location: All of these restaurants are in the most soul-sucking locations in any city."

While other millennials seem to offer some advice to the struggling sector:

“Healthier options, more locally sourced food, fair wages for staff, and cleaner atmosphere. I have worked for one of these major chains and I understand the struggles to be a chain yet provide these things like local food but feel these are important enough for them to work towards.

“Vegan/vegetarian options that are more than a side salad. Even just to offer a veggie burger as an option would be a step up.

“Better care of the design of the food they bring out. More attention to the quality of the food and ingredients they are using. I’d also prefer smaller menus. A lot of these chain restaurants tend to throw too many items on the menu. I think a lot has to do with quality of the food mainly. “

Only two millennials polled said that they enjoyed or liked eating at casual dining chains noting “specials and price points.” While a small sample size, their collective opinions reverberate the status of the casual dining industry—clamoring and trending downward. What’s more, by explicitly stating what they don’t want, our group was offering direct feedback on what they do want in a restaurant experience.

Millenials at restaurant

What Millennials Actually Want in a Dining Experience

What do millenials really want in restaurant chains? It’s a million (actually, $200 billion question) that most chains are trying to figure out. From our results, our millennials used the following words the most in their response: “experience,” “local,” “ingredients,” “fresh,” “quality,”and  “design.” Let’s break down each of those topics.

1. Experience

More so than any other demographic, millennials are driven by experiences. In fact, 72% of millennials spend money on experience-related purchases. But what does that actually mean for restaurants, and how does a casual dining chain address it? First, it’s important to think of “experience” as a broader term than just the atmosphere. Experience to millenials can mean building your own burrito bowl, using kiosks for easy automated ordering, or allowing guests to eat and throw peanuts on the floor—it’s something unique to that brand. For casual dining chains, creating a better or unique experience could be as simple as optimizing convenience and speed of service.

For example, Darden Restaurant Group, a full-service restaurant company that owns and operates 1536 restaurants for brands like Olive Garden and LongHorn Steakhouse, has been focused on building brand loyalty for the last several years. Unlike many casual dining chains, Darden Restaurants have actually shown an increase in same-store sales year over year as well as an increase in share value.  In Q4 of 2017 alone, Olive Garden posted a 16% increase in sales—obliterating most competition in the casual dining sector. Why the success? According to Darden’s CEO, Gene Lee, success for the chain was fueled by “giant stuffed pasta promotion and its ToGo program.” First, yes to the “giant stuffed pasta promotion,” and second, by giving customers the ability to quickly and easily order from their phone or computer, Olive Garden has improved and optimized their ordering and dining experience. They created convenience and options, and their customers are buying it. 

modern restaurant design at &pizzaInterior of &pizza

modern restaurant design at sweetgreenSweetgreen

2. Design

Speaking of the dining experience, we can’t forget about the restaurant’s overall design. According to our survey, millennials want a well-designed restaurant. Casual dining seems to be failing in this area, often associated with “kitchy design.” From our data, there wasn’t a certain style millennials preferred over the other, but rather, a design that was unique and meaningful to the establishment. One participant noted, “I want different material combinations, unique artwork, accent colors/different finish combos, plants! All of this makes it an enjoyable environment and experience for me and makes me want ‘hang’ for a while.” Other design elements noted include:

  • Attention to modern finishes
  • Natural lighting
  • Comfortable seating
  • Incorporating local artwork
  • Unique to the community


3. Local

This was a big one. “Local” took on several different meanings in our survey and was mentioned in some form 26 times! The first meaning pertained to “local ingredients,” cited by several millenials as “very important.” It’s now expected for all restaurants to only source local ingredients, so the fact casual dining chains have done little to localize their supply chain does not bode well with this demographic.

The second interpretation of “local” is related to local businesses.  For our recipients, eating at locally-owned restaurants seemed to come with a source of pride, opting to spend their money within their community. Which poses the question, if chains were to shed more light on their local business owners and engage themselves in the community, will millenials be more receptive? One thing is for sure, the more locally-involved a restaurant is, the more the millennial will appreciate it.

Sweetgreen saladSweetgreen salads

4. Fresh

Turned off by the cliche appetizer samplers, one millenial jokingly noted of the “high sodium” foods associated with chain restaurants. Let’s not forget, because of millennials ‘ desire to travel and craving for experiences, their palettes are quite expensive and sophisticated.  And like local ingredients, fresh ingredients are an expectation of the millennial crowd. “I feel like chain restaurants don’t use fresh ingredients like local restaurants do,” said one millenial. Freshness is an expectation for restaurants, including chains.

What’s Next for Casual Dining Chains?

While the sample may be small, the responses were collectively powerful and decidedly clear; millennials are just not that into casual dining chains. What isn’t clear is how current casual chains will address the millennial’s expectations and how this demographic will respond. We will just have to wait and see.

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