If millennials aren't eating at chain restaurants, then where (and what) are they eating?

'Fresh and healthy' drives dining decisions
If millennials aren't eating at chain restaurants, then where (and what) are they eating?
Posted at 7:00 AM, Jun 24, 2017
and last updated 2017-06-27 05:57:51-04

You get a babysitter. Put on a nice outfit. Find a parking spot. Wait 30 minutes to be seated. Order an appetizer from your unenthused teenage waitress. Forty minutes later your lukewarm food arrives. You are so hungry you don't care and you plow through some orange-chicken dish.

Your bill arrives and demands $80 for an appetizer, two entrees, two drinks and a to-go dessert.

This is the reality many millennials are avoiding at all costs, to the detriment of chain restaurants across the country.

A recent Business Insider article, titled "Millennials endanger casual dining restaurants," claimed business is declining for sit-down chains such as Applebee's and Buffalo Wild Wings. Millennials, or young adults age 21-37, are blamed for this trend as they explore other options.

So if they are avoiding these places, where are Cincinnati millennials eating?

At cheaper places ... like home

It's cheap. It's fast. Toddlers can throw tantrums or their drink without major issues. Many Tri-State millennials aren't building in eating-out expenses to their budgets, but are making room for the Farmer's Market and Pinterest recipes to prepare at home.

Andrea Granieri, 31, of Anderson Township, has a 3-year-old and 1-year-old.

"In addition to the price, eating out is also much more of a chore than a help if you have kids who don't like to sit still," she said.

Her family uses a meal-planning service called "The Fresh 20," which involves downloading a weekly meal plan, menus, prep guide, and shopping list.

"It uses healthy fresh foods in a way that reduces waste. We eat delicious and healthy meals all week."

Prari Parran, 36, and mom of five sons in Northside, said going out to eat "gets crazy."

"A dim restaurant like Applebee's feels like kids can't make any noise, and I feel uncomfortable," she said, then joked: "We eat at fancy restaurants like Chipotle as a treat."

Other millennials agree that the inconvenience of eating out provides more of a stressor than a relaxing environment, which was the original intention of not cooking in the first place.

Emma Gentry, 28, of Reading, is among the many millennials participating in the "farm-to-table" mission. With a brother who owns a farm and restaurant, she prioritizes eating local and fresh food, and she purchases meat and eggs from him.

"Eating local is something we always want to do above anything else, and we feel very strongly about supporting small businesses," she said. "Cincinnati has become this amazing place to eat brunch, grab coffee, enjoy a beer, and everything in between."

At trendier places

The hipsters know where to eat, so follow them!

Over-the-Rhine's bustling trendy restaurant market is drawing people from all over the Tri-State who have lost interest in chain restaurants.

Jessica Walther sits before a tuna poke bowl at Senate, a new Blue Ash restaurant that is a spinoff of the original Over-the-Rhine location.

Jessica Walther, 30, of Oakley, said social media is impacting millennials' dining decision making.

"Nobody is going to post 'I'm at Applebee's today!' " she said. "It's not fresh. You get something pre-prepared in the microwave, thrown on a plate and then they call things new menu items when they are just reusing the same ingredients. It's not creative. It's not culinary."

Walther lists her go-to restaurants as "anything in OTR, Sotto, Taste of Belgium, and China Gourmet." The one chain she does enjoy is Capital Grille, an upscale steakhouse in Rookwood Commons, based on the personal experience and service, which they accomplish by taking a photo and creating a profile of each client. They then greet people by name, and know their food preferences.

"They already know that you like steak medium rare. I order steak tartare, an item off the menu, and they know I get that. It's just that personal touch," she said.

Others agree that social media is changing the way millennials eat.

"A lot of people my age are getting more exposed to healthy foods and better education through social media," said Keanna Peek, 24, of Mariemont. She changed how she ate when she became a breastfeeding mother.

"Do I want excess hormones and pesticides in my breast milk? Of course not."

At faster places

The "fast-casual" industry (think Panera, Chipotle, Skyline) grew by 550 percent from 1999 to 2014, the Washington Post reported. People don't have time for a one-hour sit-down meal with mediocre food and service on the way home from a soccer game. They do seem to have time to run in somewhere and grab food to go in less than 15 minutes, oftentimes with the ability to order ahead on an app. This option is also popular with parents of younger children who may not want to unload the family for an extended meal after a long day, yet still want better food than a drive-thru.

A good substitute for a faster place can also be an entertaining place, for those with little ones who need activities while they wait. Skyline's cracker bowl, for example, can keep a young child busy, or an outdoor patio can give kids more freedom to move around while they wait.

At "safer" places

According to Food Manufacturing, a PRNewswire study showed that 54 percent of millennials say they or someone in their household restrict or monitor intake of at least one of the tested nutritional factors. Limited menu options for those who are vegetarian, gluten-free, dairy-free, allergic to certain foods, and have other limitations are discouraging some millennials from eating out in general, but more specifically at chains that often have preset menu options and meal items.

Sony Davis of Maineville, who has celiac disease (an immune reaction to eating gluten), avoids chain restaurants because she "cannot guarantee cross-contamination will not occur." So the self-proclaimed "crunchy" stay-at-home mom cooks the majority of meals at home.

"I have the time to make every meal, and it's reassuring that I know what my 2-year-old is eating," she said.