The biggest generation since the Boomers, the Millennial generation is changing how events are planned and executed
By Deanne Moskowitz
Representing the third generation of his family’s more than 30-year-old catering business, Keegan Gosik says he does his job very differently than his predecessor. That’s partly because Sensational Host Caterers in Maple Shade, N.J., now requires a full-time business development director, but is largely a response to the technology explosion and changing client demographic favoring Millennials. Undoubtedly, it also has something to do with the fact that 29-year-old Gosik himself is a Millennial.
Like many caterers, Gosik sees Millennials playing a bigger part in his business. The biggest generation since the Boomers (whether you define them as 18- to 34-year-olds or 15- to 38-year-olds, as we do here), Millennials—or Generation Y—are expected to control the future of business, including food service. So marketers everywhere are tracking their habits, and even McDonald’s is adapting its menu to please them.
A profile of the generation may seem discouraging for the future of the catering industry. A December 2014 United States Census study indicates that 18- to 34-year-old Americans will continue to be financially limited by the economic downturns that struck as they embarked on their careers, and an October 2014 report by The Council of Economic Advisers shows fewer have ever been married, reflecting a tendency to marry later, if at all. But caterers interviewed here have not experienced a dip.
Gosik estimates that 80 percent of his clients are Millennials, not just in the wedding category but special events and corporate, too, as members transition into authoritative positions.
Holly Sheppard, chef/owner of Fig & Pig Catering in Brooklyn, N.Y., which mainly caters weddings, says her Millennial business could be as high as 75 percent.
Larry Walter, chief operating officer of Tasty Catering in Chicago, claims wedding business has been on the upswing since the company switched its focus from corporate to social in recent years, and 100 percent of it is from Millennial clients, who represent another 30 percent in other categories.
Tony Conway, president of Legendary Events in Atlanta, which owns two wedding venues, estimates 40 percent, noting that Southerners generally still marry young.
And Wesley Guzman, senior event designer at Epicurean Catering in Denver, estimates 25 to 30 percent, although there the older generation still “holds most of the money” and “still does most of the events.”
With their reliance on technology and social media and their distinctive dining preferences, Millennials are entirely unlike the previously dominant generation in their approach to catered events. Working with them can be challenging, caterers concede, but also exhilarating.
The first generation to grow up with the Internet, Millennials rely on technology in everything they do, and shopping for a caterer and planning an event are no exceptions. They want little “face time” but superfast responses.
“Probably 60 to 70 percent of Millennial business comes through a web-based communication,” says Walter. “But they’re putting that out to 8 to 10 people in a second. Whoever responds fastest gets more of the business.”
“If a bride doesn’t get a response to her text within 24 hours, she’s wondering what’s going on,” Conway says. He’s taken to maintaining his event files on his cell phone, so he can access information immediately and respond from the road.
Even when Millennials have formed “a creditable contact” at a vendor or venue, communication continues to be 95 percent via the Internet, according to Gosik, who claims that the emailing is constant. “I get plenty after 10 at night and before 4 a.m.”
One reason for the nonstop interaction between clients and caterers is the way that Millennials look to media and social media in their planning.
“There’s more information from this generation about what they like and don’t like,” according to Conway. “They’ll say, ‘Hey, take a look at my Pinterest page at the three new things that I pinned. What do you think of that?’”
“There’s so much more for brides to see that they kind of want it all,” Guzman points out. They end up wanting “this out of this picture and that out of that,” he adds, turning to their caterers to help them sort things out.
Educated by the Internet and by food TV, Millennials are quick to question every item and expense on a proposal.
“They are more knowledgeable about the different packages and they opt in or out,” explains Gosik. “They may think something is ‘a little over the top’ for them…Or they want to spend more money and ask about what cool options they can add to make the event uniquely about them.”
“There’s more conversation about food and wine pairings and where food comes from,” notes Conway. “I wouldn’t say that budgets are lower, but there’s a lot more discussion about what things cost.” He conjectures that it’s possibly because couples are paying for events themselves.
Even when they don’t have the money, Millennials “still want what they want,” observes Guzman, who says it’s his job to “know what they can afford and lead them down the right path.”
From venues to menus, Millennials want events that reflect who they are. They care little about upholding tradition and a lot about personalizing their parties, and showing themselves and their guests a good time.
“They want to make it fun and different from any event anyone has ever seen,” Gosik observes.
“They want what they want,” says Walter, offering the example of craft beer, which is a major priority at Millennial weddings now. “The number-one thing we’re jumping through hoops about is to get them their favorites,” since no two couples seem to prefer the same brands.
Wedding planning used to be the bailiwick of the bride and her mom, but now decisions come from couples, who ignore the opinions of parents, even if they’re paying. Grooms participate equally with brides, or there may be two brides or two grooms. That’s sometimes the case at Epicurean, where staff members undergo sensitivity training, and the same-sex-friendly terms “couple” or “partners” are used in place of the term “bride and groom.”
“There used to be certain traditional things you had to have at a wedding—shrimp cocktail, chicken breast and sliced sirloin, for example” recalls Walter. “But Millennials like to ‘change it up.’ They’ll say, ‘Instead of [hot] soup, we’re going to have gazpacho.’”
“Typically they want a much more contemporary setting,” Conway explains. “They want to be in the craziest warehouse or an address you’re invited to and here’s the Uber account that’s being used to get everyone there and back.”
The 16th birthday bash he catered honoring celebrity Steve Harvey’s daughter was held at the Delta Flight Museum. The guest of honor and her BFF, who flew into the Atlanta airport for the occasion, were viewed in transit by waiting guests on a jumbo video screen until the moment that the elevator doors parted and they appeared in the flesh.
Even with limited budgets, Millennials find ways to stand out by getting “super-creative,” says Walter. They might rent a warehouse and make it what he calls “shabby chic.” Or they’ll turn to Tasty’s corporate drop-off menu and host an upscale pig roast reception in mom and dad’s backyard.
A very elegant and expensive Millennial wedding that Epicurean catered was held in a barn in the Denver Botanic Gardens at Chatfield, Jenna Johansen, Epicurean’s innovation chef, recalls. “It wasn’t about how much money they spent; it was how personal and individual it was to them,” she explains.
The same event illustrates how Millennials care more about their own eating habits than the preferences of their guests, she thinks. Totally local and mostly vegan and gluten-free, it featured an entrée of Colorado lamb loin, “a ton of hors d’oeuvres,” and such vegan offerings as Olathe sweet corn fritters with pesto cashew cream; potato latke with edamame puree; and an entrée of sweet potato lentil cakes. As an additional personalizing touch, the couple printed the menu on their napkins.
Millennials are strong proponents of interactive and communal serving formats, such as food stations, particularly those offering customizing options.
“They are not so much into the served sit-down dinner,” Conway observes. “They want lots of different items. Keep the drinks coming and have food late into the night.”
While their parents may envision a seated dinner and beef tenderloin, some of Sheppard’s young clients might crave a cocktail hour of oysters and a “big ole mound of fried chicken with biscuits,” possibly followed by salad and a fish or beef entrée served family style, she says.
At one September wedding, she paired stations and so-called “floating bowls,” a sort of butlered tasting menu. Among the two- and three-bite entrees were wild striped bass with heirloom tomato, yellow tomato vinaigrette and fried shallots; grilled skirt steak with grilled vegetables and lime vinaigrette; and fish tacos.
Serving farm-fresh local dishes in an action-packed format, Sensational Host’s menu for the 25th anniversary of a neighborhood nutritional alliance was a Millennial’s dream. There were four interactive appetizer stations, a series of butlered hors d’oeuvres, entrees presented at Chefs’ Performance Bars and a sweets station, where chefs built and torched desserts to order. The Farm-House Smoked station, serving variations of house-smoked Atlantic-caught salmon and pork, and the From the Coop station, offering local duck and chicken, helped cultivate the farm-to-table theme.
Vying with five other preferred caterers for the business of probably 60,000 Millennial participants at the annual JP Morgan Chase corporate challenge held in Chicago’s Grant Park, Tasty takes the lead by posting a carefully tailored menu online and stressing food freshness—for example, burgers grilled on site instead of hours before in the commissary.
Johansen geared the menu for a same-sex-friendly wedding showcase, where tuxedos shared the spotlight with gowns, to the Millennial love for local ingredients and customizing. A good example is the Colorado dipping station, offering local lamb cheek and all-natural chicken with five saucing choices, among them miso umami aioli, smoked onion mustard and red chili chimichurri.
Growing up with food TV and everyday ethnic dining options, Millennials are savvier than previous generations about menu planning. Ardent advocates for local and sustainable sourcing, they’re willing to pay for the best ingredients, which they like to showcase in simple dishes.
“They’re not about…pomp and circumstance,” says Conway. “They want really great food and really great wines, because they’re more knowledgeable… .”
Sheppard’s client Etsy, a dot.com that is all about supporting local businesses, insists that she provide comprehensive sourcing information for the monthly luncheons she caters for their 450 mostly-Millennial employees. And, at the request of one Brooklyn-based client, Sheppard says she sourced everything at one event from only that borough, from McClure’s potato chips to Magpies pop tarts.
Johansen sees interest growing for “more farm to table…and more Colorado-influenced menus.” Instead of ordinary steak tartare, Millennials want it made with local buffalo, for example, and they appreciate her house-smoked Rocky Mountain trout rillettes on watermelon radish. Colorado peach and camembert salad, comprising local MouCo cheese and Palisade peaches, was part of the “Colorado Proud” station she created for last summer’s Bloomin’ Sculpture event for 3,000 in Denver’s Sculpture Park.
Millennials also are serious about satisfying special dietary regimens, which are especially prevalent on their menus.
Beginning with their summer picnic menu, Tasty has begun using letter notations to identify which items are dairy-free, gluten-free, vegan, vegetarian and organic. In addition, last summer Walter hired an intern to research the nutritional information for everything listed on the company’s corporate menu and now lists the information online.
To meet the needs of one gluten-intolerant couple without depriving guests, Conway planned a totally gluten-free menu. It featured grilled Granny Smith apple salad with Red Dragon cheese and candied pecans, red wine braised short rib with potato parsnip gratin, and a flourless chocolate bar with whipped cream, raspberry coulis and fresh raspberries.
Mindful of the many Millennials who follow the Paleo diet, Johansen created a Bone Broth station for the Sculpture Garden event, first scouring social media to be sure it would be a first.
Since using social media to broadcast impressions is routine to Millennials, it’s becoming integral to catered events, too.
Instead of photo booths and videos, everyone is Instagramming right from events and uploading photos directly to dedicated Facebook pages, giving couples instant keepsakes. Most events have their own hashtags, so guests can instantly share their excitement about every aspect.
Since the Internet is the primary information source for this prospective client base, it’s not surprising that caterers are using websites and social media to publicize events and businesses. Websites have become promotional powerhouses, enlivened by videos and packed with all the information Millennials might desire.
When Epicurean thinks an event will interest its followers, they post it to social media, broadening exposure by tagging collaborating companies. A Facebook administrator oversees social media activity at events, and Epicurean’s Facebook page links to Instagram and Twitter accounts.
Sites and social media also help boost branding. A page of social media feeds on Sensational Host’s site keeps viewers abreast of the company’s latest exploits and contributions to community causes. The “People Who Rock” page on the Fig & Pig site expresses Sheppard’s support of local businesses.
Despite how heavily Millennials lean on technology, personal relationships matter to them. Every event planner at Epicurean has a separate page on the company website and a personal Pinterest page, because Millennials like to gain a better sense of who is working on their event, Guzman explains. And caterers win points with community-minded Millennials by participating in local activities. Gosik encourages sales reps to “give back” by getting involved, and says he considers transparency in his dealings with staff and clients a hallmark of his leadership style linked to his generation. “They want you to be prepared, knowledgeable and trustworthy,” he concludes.