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The Bar Industry's Endless Pursuit of the Millennial Dollar

  • by: Maggie Mahar
  • On: 31, May 2019
23 min read

Way, way back in 2015, Forrester Research declared:

“While some businesses must target millennials because of the nature of their products, most do not need to. When such companies do pine for twenty-somethings, they resemble the desperation of a nerdy teenager who, smitten with a prom queen, forlornly asks, ‘Why doesn’t she love me back?’”

This is absolutely, 100% true for restaurants and bars.

A Google search of “millennial marketing for restaurants” produces 5.63 million results in 0.56 seconds. Going through these results, they carry the affectation of an Attenborough documentary -- written by someone observing the habits of another, nonhuman species entirely. They use surface-level ‘insights’ to provide equally shallow pointers in a soulless effort to chase some abstract, J. Crew branded pot of gold. From the millennial point of view, it’s patronizing. From the restaurateur point of view, it’s misguided.


The feeding frenzy over the millennial dollar has shown absolutely no signs of stopping. Every week, we are inundated with this type of content, providing ultimately unhelpful and soulless hard data about how, you too, can pander to and exploit your potential millennial customer.

It’s no huge shock that the millennial dollar is so highly coveted.  Millennials are a profitable sort of group -- by 2020, some estimate that millennials will have a collective disposable income of 1.4 trillion dollars. As a generation, they spend a lot and they share a lot. It’s a bit of a no-brainer to want millennials to enjoy your establishment.

That being said, there are 80 million millennials in America today. We need to consider that this huge swath of society is not some monolithic, perpetually unanimous group of people. Millennials are not some otherworldly species, thriving exclusively off St. Germain cocktails and sessionable craft beer. For us, it’s about time to stop these blatant, cynical attempts at capturing the millennial dollar, and start looking at what makes restaurants and bars truly outstanding. After all, millennials are people, and what do people want? Great experiences.

During our research for this article, we combed (painfully) through plenty of ‘restaurant marketing for millennials’ type of listicles. One in particular dropped this bit of pseudo-wisdom on us:

“If it seems that millennials are constantly glued to their phones, it’s because they are. It’s important to post every day on Instagram or Snapchat to connect with your millennial audience.”

This struck us as a microcosm of the entire topic at hand. The short-sighted, cynical, and oversimplified approach is exactly what we oppose. Sure -- having active, engaging social media content is definitely a must in our business. That being said, posting everyday on Instagram is not going to make millennials pour through your front door. For generation ‘m’, phones are just tools to discover and connect with what’s going on.

As such, we should look at what we are doing with our social media. Are we just chasing trends, scrambling to court our potential millennial guests? Or, is there some reason, something we can create that people actually want to read? The latter is where you can truly resonate with people. Use social media to tell your restaurant’s story, to spark discussions that your brand is truly excited about, and to form legitimate connections with your guests.

The bar and restaurant industry is constantly in flux, blown a thousand miles in a different direction from the slightest shift in customer demand. One article we found in our research offered this tip to bring in the millennial dollar:





“Mason Jars. A hipster’s favorite – Pizza Hut added cocktails to its menu in London, serving the mixed drinks in mason jars with handles. Red Lobster also started incorporating mason jars when it introduced dessert cakes in them.”

These small, micro ideas are not going to bring millennials into your restaurant or bar. These types of small-scale trends come up, typically, because they are new and fresh ideas that the consumer has not experienced. The novelty exists for a while, and then fades ( gracefully or not) into the territory of ‘passé’. Staying attuned to the hottest, latest trend is always a good idea, but don’t make the mistake of jumping on every single tiny wave that the Food and Beverage ocean creates. Instead, we always vote to create something new. Take risks. They won’t always work out, of course. But you might find more success than being the fifth bar on your block serving out of mason jars.

If there’s one ‘tip’ that we found agreeable in our research, it’s that millennials have extremely advanced BS detectors. Millennials want authenticity and transparency. When the biggest brewery in the world suddenly starts a craft line, millennials know what’s going on. The younger generation wants authenticity, not pandering. They don’t want beer that tastes like a locally-made craft beer -- they want a locally-made craft beer.


And we suppose that’s the underlying statement to all of this. Don’t micromanage the vision of your bar or restaurant to fall more in line with the millennial spirit. As far as we can tell, it will only be wasted time. The people who your efforts aren’t targeting won’t care, and the people you are targeting will see right through it.

Instead, keep things simple. Don’t chase trends. Create a genuine, quality establishment that reflects what you have to offer as a restaurateur. Craft a relevant, exciting menu. Include things in your program because you genuinely love them, not because they have some abstract, mythical stamp of millennial approval. By all means, use social media to connect with people. Millennials are the most diverse group in American history -- there’s no skeleton key here. And after all of that, millennials are still just one generation, and another one is hot on their heels.

Our prediction? The Generation Z gold-rush is not far off.


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