The food industry suffered pretty badly in 2010. Between fears of another economic collapse driven by rhetoric about debts and the impact of a decade of pop food icons stressing the ease, health, and price benefits of cooking at home, the number of people going out to eat dropped significantly.
Three years later those numbers are starting to rise again, and it seems that the primary drivers of that rise are Baby Boomers and members of the Greatest Generation, who are returning to restaurants. A number of factors have contributed to the demographic flood, and they have been influencing restaurant trends.
Restaurants Change Focus
Traditionally, older generations have more disposable incomes. They have accumulated a lifetime of savings and have paid off many of the major bills that younger people still have (e.g. car payments, mortgages, etc.). This makes older generations a better bet for marketing.
When the frightening numbers from 2010 came through, restaurants responded by altering their marketing plans. Instead of focusing on trying to be hip and ahead of trends, they instead started pushing their traditional values, down home feel, and laid back attitudes. They went out of their way to appear nonthreatening and as close to home as possible without the cooking and cleaning that would be involved in eating at home.
Menus Revert Back
Menus also began to change. The 2000s were awash with cooking shows and celebrity chefs trying to push people into trying new things and exploring the possibilities that food had to offer, so restaurants had started experimenting with new ideas. However, those new ideas were embraced mostly by the adventurous younger generation who were often raised on messages about the glories of blue corn, truffle oil, and arugula.
Ironically, many stores that used to cater to those who wanted their food with an international flair have shifted their focus back to the traditional American items that have long been popular in the U.S.
Throwback restaurants have also seen a major resurgence in popularity. Steak and Shake has always been popular, but several major marketing pushes, a $4 and below menu, and a 50s diner-like atmosphere have managed to pull in an older crowd that finds the setting and price point to be familiar and comfortable. The word "steakburger" has been de-emphasized from the time when that made it sound unique and different. Rather, Steak and Shake is focusing on sounding more mundane now, more comforting, more like the nostalgic image that older people have of their youth.
Even Hip Restaurants Seem More Welcoming
The trend to put a twist on traditional comfort foods has also found fertile ground in the modern restaurant scene. Many popular casual restaurant chains have developed some variation on mac and cheese, tomato soup and grilled cheese, or meatloaf.
These are not just nostalgic comfort foods, they are iconic of an earlier time in history, one that would be more familiar to Boomers and their parents than to Millennials. The idea of putting a twist on these foods is an attempt to thread the needle and not alienate younger customers, but it's clear that the primary concern is to draw in an older crowd.
While restaurant numbers are bouncing back, it's a slow growth and still hasn't reached pre-2010 levels. However, taking aim at older patrons seems to be a successful strategy for a number of different places, and there is a good chance that this tactic will take them pretty close to those numbers again before it reaches a critical mass. New ideas will have to come after that, but for now restaurants are primarily a place where older people go to spend their money, while the young cook for themselves at home.