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Why Millennials Are Hooked on Chain Restaurants

A new report finds that the biggest fans of fast food chains are millennials.
A cheeseburger and large fries from a Five Guys restaurant.
A cheeseburger and large fries from a Five Guys restaurant.REUTERS/Yuri Gripas / REUTERS

Millennials are known for having a strong penchant for experience, in all forms of the word. Many prefer dating over settling down, job-hopping over corporate climbing, travel experiences over shoe collections. So, they must adore obscure diners and off-the-grid cafés, right? Perhaps. But what millennials really can't get enough of is chain restaurants.

The latest EquiTrend Report from Harris Poll found that millennials, shaping the trends of the U.S. brand landscape, rank restaurant chains higher than older generations do.

Millennial favorites, as indicated by the Harris Poll's "Brand of the Year" awards, are as follows: In the burger category, Five Guys packed the most sizzle; in the chicken restaurant category, Chick-fil-A; the Cheesecake Factory was the top-ranking casual dining restaurant; Starbucks beat out Dunkin' Donuts in the coffee and quick service restaurant category; Moe's Southwest Grill won over Chipotle as fast casual Mexican; Ben & Jerry's ranked as the favorite ice cream and froyo shop; Papa John's came in first for pizza brands, and Subway beat out Panera Bread as the top sandwich shop.

The Millennial Wants What It Wants — And Now

How do these chains win over the hearts of millennials? Well, for starters, they’re inexpensive and easy to find.

"Millennials are huge fans of convenience," said Yohan Varella, a millennial and a marketing executive in Vancouver. "We don’t like prepping and cooking our own food, we enjoy food we can eat with our hands, and we’re usually on a budget, so chain restaurants pretty much are the personification of the answer to our wants. We don’t want to wait for 30 minutes to be seated at an exclusive restaurant, we want our food to be available wherever we are, whenever we want it."

And while they may love adventure, millennials don’t appreciate surprises. At least, not when it comes to grabbing a quick bite.

Related: Millennials Are Doing Their Shopping at Dollar Stores

"I know that chain restaurants all have the same protocol and pricing so I won’t be surprised when going to a different location," said 23-year-old Kayla Hockman of New York City. "It’s comfortable and well known. It’s also great because I know that they’ll have the same offerings everywhere, and due to heavy advertisement, I know what’s available in all restaurants."

The millennial demand for reliability is one that these chains make sure to meet. Bruce Schroder, president, Moe’s Southwest Grill, notes that “the consistency factor,” is especially effective in retaining millennial customers.

"At Moe’s, you can walk in to any one of our restaurants, in any part of the country and expect the same great experience,” Schroder told NBC News. “We’ve found all of our customers, especially the millennial segment, are drawn to that reliability."

At Your Mobile Fingertips

The modern definition of convenience in retail has expanded to include mobile solutions, and chain restaurants have mastered this technology. When Chick-fil-A launched its mobile app in June 2016, interest soared.

"The app was downloaded more than two million times in the first three days of the launch, ranking it as the number one free app in the Apple Store during that time, ahead of Snapchat, Instagram and Facebook," said Michael Lage, senior manager, digital experience, Chick-fil-A. "It's been a great success among millennials and other busy customers who are looking for easier ways to order."

Starbucks also has a hugely successful mobile app program. Bruce Clark, an associate professor of marketing at the D’Amore-McKim School of Business at Northeastern University notes that it works so well because it combines so many elements: mobile payments, a loyalty program, grab and go mobile ordering (skip the line), and even sending gifts to others.

“Last year Starbucks reported a full quarter of in-store sales were being paid for through the app,” noted Clark.

Power to the Social Media

Social media is yet another area that sees chain restaurants winning over millennials. Platforms like Facebook and Instagram enable these brands to engage with new and existing customers, and as Professor Clark points out, the ball is in their food court thanks to the thriving “food porn” movement.

“Food makes for wonderful digital imagery,” said Clark. “User-generated content probably helps here as well: A restaurant experience with friends is more likely to be shared through social media such as Snapchat than say, the purchase of a TV.”

Just look at the Cheesecake Factory on Instagram, where it has over half a million followers. New pics and videos are constantly being added, and it’s one of the brand’s best marketing maneuvers.

"We have a lot of millennial guests who are our fans on social media," said the Cheesecake Factory's president, David Gordon. “We have a very fun, playful tone on our social media channels that’s consistent with the energy of our brand. That playful tone helps to keep our fans engaged. Additionally, our portion sizes and presentations are very photogenic. In fact, we’re one of the most Instagramed restaurant brands.”

Social Causes and Healthy Choices

What pairs well with social media? A generous serving of social awareness. Jose Duenas, EVP of Marketing for Olive Garden (which placed third in the casual restaurant dining category), notes that millennials "want to feel good about the choices they make — and that appetite extends to their dining habits."

"As a very socially conscious generation, millennials seek brands who give back to the communities they serve, and brands need to reflect that in their marketing," said Duenas. "For example, we’ve been making Olive Garden’s Harvest program, through which our restaurants have donated more than 36 million pounds of high-quality food to local community food banks, a more visible part of our storytelling."

And just as millennials seek food that is good for the world, they seek food that is good for them. It’s no accident that Five Guys, a more expensive option with fewer locations than McDonald’s came in at number one in the burger category, while McDonald’s lagged at number seven.

Related: What Do Millennials Really Want at Work?

"Even when I eat something like a burger, I like to know that the beef is real and was not frozen so I go with Five Guys," said 26-year-old John Liston of Boston. “Since the ingredients are fresher, every aspect of the meal is better.”

Over the past few years, Chick-fil-A has upped the ante on healthier offerings, adding the Superfood Side made with kale and broccolini, the Egg White Grill breakfast sandwich, and the Spicy Southwest Salad — all popular additions, Chick-fil-A’s Lage says.

"We also revamped our salad menu in 2014 and have seen a 50 percent increase in sales in that category," he added.

Why Less Boomer Love?

Convenience, good pricing, healthy choices — that all sounds like stuff boomers would eat up. So why might they be patronizing chains less than millennials? Perhaps because in matters of time and money, they can afford to be a bit more choosy.

"Maybe millennials — due to factors like lower wage growth, and an alleged lack of 'old world' skills, like cooking — have embraced the cheap, fast nature of quick service restaurants, whereas boomers are in a different place in their life and would rather spend a little extra and get a little more quality," opined Adam Giffi, a millennial based in Chicago.

Barry Cohen, a boomer and marketer based in New York, finds that the “cookie cutter” menu that appeals to millennials is less inviting to a boomer who may have dietary restrictions.

"Chains can't always accommodate boomers’ dietary restrictions," said Cohen, adding that a meal, though ostensibly healthy, may not be diabetic friendly. Plus, the fast-paced, noisy atmosphere that is pretty much the norm for chain restaurants can be annoying.

“The chains tend to be noisy and we prefer a quiet dining experience,” said Cohen. “[They are also] crowded, which requires long wait times, unless you go early. As boomers, we are caregivers to older folks, who often cannot sit and wait for long periods.”

Perhaps chain restaurants recognize that boomers are more finicky and in turn, don’t put as much money or effort into engaging them. After all, when you’re busy filling the tall orders of millennials, it’s tough to make room at the table for everybody else.