In a time of Yelp reviews and iPad menus, food prevails above all. In a proprietary study conducted by Rich Santiago, SVP of Behavioral Planning at BBDO Atlanta, over 1,000 millennials were surveyed to find out what makes them tick when it comes to dining out at QSR and fast casual restaurants. The findings will surprise you.

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BBDO recently conducted a study among 1,000 Millenials designed to better understand what defines them when it comes to dining out. Millennials represent about 27% of the total population and 64% of them eat out at least once a week. So understanding their behaviors, attitudes, and demographics is critical to the restaurant marketer. Within this, the study also took a look at 21 of the most popular QSR and fast casual restaurants. And what was uncovered will surprise you. Turns out, this is a group defined by contradictions unlike any previous generation.

Here are a number of the insights uncovered by this study:

For Millennials, the food itself is the number one contributor to restaurant loyalty. And nearly five out of 10 Millennials refer to themselves as foodies. But being a foodie is not about white tablecloths and refined palates. While they say they’re looking to stay on top of current food trends and seeking out new places with unique flavors and great atmosphere, long-visited standbys such as McDonald’s, Burger King, and Subway still get more than their share of young patrons. In fact, 60% of Millennial “foodies” eat at fast food restaurants at least once a week, compared to 48% for older adults. And one in four men eat fast food four times a week or more.

But while they are eating a lot of fast food, their health is always top of mind. If they eat out too often, guilt begins to set in. Female Millennials, older Millennials (25–35), married Millennials, and Millennials with children are all subject to guilt trips if they eat out more than two or three times a week. And while people who self-identify as “curvy” won’t budge on flavor, they’re looking for healthier options and checking out the nutrition information on menus.

Unlike the generations that preceded them, Millennials have a fascination with food as a way to tell their story. For them, food is not just about nourishment. It’s about self-expression and entertainment. It’s about personal storytelling. They’re Instagramming what they eat, following food celebrities on Twitter, and venturing out to all sorts of new places, from the latest trendy joint to the hole-in-the-wall down the street. But for a generation defined by social media, they don’t care if a restaurant gets bad reviews on Yelp. If their friends like it, they’ll go. If they like it, they’ll share a picture and review of it.

So besides taking pictures of what they eat how do Millennials feel about technology “at the table”? Not surprisingly, 88% admitted they check their phones at the dinner table. But 44% say they hate it when others do it. Although they hate when others use their devices, one in seven Millennials want free Wi-Fi in restaurants, and about one-third of men want to be able to pre-order and pay using their phones.

Finally, the study examines the values and beliefs important to Millennials. 48% said their families define them, and 16% said their passions do. Honesty ranked highest in what matters most in how they live their lives. Pretentions are out. Honesty and transparency are in. And, integral to their lifestyle is the food they eat and the people they eat it with.

According to Rich Santiago, SVP and Director of Behavioral Planning at BBDO Atlanta and author of the study, "There is so much written on Millennials, we just wanted to find the gaps. We looked for a big 'aha' but the most interesting part, for us, ended up being the contradictions."

Other Interesting findings:

Millennial men are more critical of the dining experience and are more likely to describe themselves as “foodies”.

The South accounts for the most frequent diners. Actually, 41% of them eat out over four times a week, and one out of five eats at fast food places such as Chick-fil-A and Arby’s.

In fact, 75% of Millennials would pay more for great food at the expense of great service.

Bringing the kids along doesn’t mean compromising on flavor. Actually, 48% of Millennials with kids are looking for places offering unique flavor combinations as opposed to only 9% of those without kids.

Looking forward, Millennials want to be more adventurous with their food choices – it’s the top way they think their eating habits will change over the next five years. About a third also want to be able to create their own meals, and 38% cite the variety on the menu as a driver for loyalty.

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