Thank You, Millennials

June 19, 2017

By JR Shirt, June 19, 2017

Millennials get blamed for all kinds of things. Type in “millennials are killing” into Chrome’s omnibox and it will autocomplete with napkins, America, department stores, and golf. And depending on how strongly you feel about napkins or golf, the possible death of those four things could take you through the entire range of your emotional spectrum.

Let’s add one more to the mix: casual dining. In late May, Buffalo Wild Wings CEO Sally Smith essentially said in a letter to shareholders that millennials don’t like Buffalo Wild Wings.

And it’s not just Buffalo Wild Wings, either. According to the Business Insider article, Applebee’s, Ruby Tuesday’s, and TGIFridays are all in the same boat. I very badly want to say TGIFridays is TGI-Losing-Money but I don’t know if that is necessarily a true statement. Even still, I think it gets us to the heart of the matter – does anyone love these restaurants?

If millennials do succeed in killing casual dining chain restaurants, is that something that anyone should care about?

Full disclosure: I used to work at an Applebee’s in my twenties. Also, I have been to a Buffalo Wild Wings twice in my life, and the second time was because we received a gift card from relatives.

Truthfully, I am not entirely sure if I am a millennial or not. I’m pretty sure I’m not – I was born in 1978 and most places that I’ve looked says that makes me a Gen X’er, which seems to fall more in line with my love of Winona Ryder and JCPenney and fit the personal self doubt I have regarding my generational label. Also, I can’t really work Snapchat.

Millennial or not, would I even notice if any of these casual dining chains closed up shop around me?

Maybe the Internet has made everyone think they are a chef.”

The Business Insider article cites millennials’ penchant to cook at home or opt for delivery services more often than their parents as reasons that these establishments are struggling. The video found at the bottom of the article references student loans, rent, and technology as line items taking up a larger chunk of people’s budget while grocery prices in the past year have been some of the cheapest in recent history.

All this makes good economic sense and it’s easy to add one more thing to the list of millennial-induced casualties. But I think it might be more than that. The real question here is should we care? I have few theories that might help us answer that.

Theory #1 (and probably the most plausible):
The food at these places is not great.

Let’s face it, the food at these casual dining chains is just not that good and millennials are the first generation informed enough to figure that out on a grand scale. In the case of Buffalo Wild Wings, I can easily think of 5-10 places around me that I would rather order wings from, sit down service or take out. Yes, they offer a ton of sauce options, but frankly so does almost every other place that takes pride in their wings.

Theory #2:
The Internet has made everyone more comfortable in the kitchen.

I almost said that the Internet has made everyone a chef but that is way off base. Maybe the Internet has made everyone think they are a chef, but for the most part, nothing could be further from the truth.

Beyond Blue Apron and similar services, the Internet has made it much easier to find out how to cook a steak just the way you like it or make alfredo sauce that actually tastes good. Nevermind that the Internet and social media have combined to completely, and rightfully, fetishize the farmer’s markets and street markets around us.

If millennials kill casual dining chains, should we care?”

And so back to Theory #1, if the food at these casual chains isn’t great, farmer’s markets are awesome, and groceries are cheap, then why would anyone opt to sit down and hear a hard-sell pitch for a frozen raspberry mojito at Applebee’s when I can cook tasty fajitas at home and then post pics of them to my Insta?

This theory also lends itself to craft beer if you live in the type of place where your grocery store sell beer or your street market has a brewery filling growlers. Even if your local grocer doesn’t carry craft beer, or any beer for that matter, getting a six pack is probably just one more stop. And the person at the six pack store isn’t going to try and convince that you want a super ultimate margarita with a Cuervo sidecar.

Can you tell I that I despised that particular aspect of my Applebee’s job? The constant pitching of new drinks and apps and the new for-a-limited-time-only summer grillerz menu. And I hate it even more as a patron. That part of the casual dining experience is the equivalent of a telemarketer calling on the old landline just as mom puts the dinner down on the table. In fact, the whole thing probably warrants its own theory, but we’ve gone too far at this point. Seriously though, didn’t most people ditch the landline in an effort to stop getting calls from telemarketers and maybe save a little bit of money? Is that what’s happening here? Is Buffalo Wild Wings the landline of restaurants? God, I hope not.

(It’s probably a bad analogy though because like my father says, you’re going to want that landline when the shit goes down. I just don’t see anything from a casual dining menu filling that same role. Riblets maybe?)

Theory #3:

Really it’s more than just convenience. It’s more like well crafted convenience. The Business Insider article references Chipotle and Panera as examples of fast casual, where the restaurant server middleman has been eliminated. But I think it goes even one step beyond that – craft and convenience. Is it possible that the local brewpub has taken the millennial market share? Or a least a solid chunk of it?

Again, I’m most likely not a millennial, but the last two places I’ve eaten have been brewpubs. One of them probably has better food than beer and the second offered the sort of pop-up kitchen model that I first experienced at Threes Brewing in Brooklyn a few summers ago – order your beer at the bar, and order your food at a separate counter just a few feet away. And while that might not sound terribly convenient, it generally tends to work out great and serves to remove the barriers between the customer and the brewer and the customer and the kitchen. Somehow, making the interactions separate creates a more connected experience, and from what I’ve read, millennials are all about connected experiences.

Now regardless if any of my theories hold water, the question remains: If millennials kill casual dining chains, should we care?

Our one concern should be jobs. As these places close, people are losing jobs. Losing jobs is bad, and not everyone that works at these places is a single twenty-something. The idea of saying we shouldn’t care when people with families might be losing jobs stings more than a little bit. So maybe we should care.

However, I’m no economist, but I did hear on NPR that U.S. unemployment rates are at their lowest since 2001. And so if millennials are going to kill Buffalo Wild Wings, and we want to say that frankly we just don’t care, then this certainly seems like the best time for that.

So thank you, millennials.

You’ve either had your face in your phone long enough to research all the better options available, or you looked up from your screen long enough to realize that you prefer a more personal connection with what you’re eating and drinking.

Whatever the reason, thank you.

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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