Millennials are murderers! Or so you’d think, if you believe the headlines. Which I do, for the most part — though in the case of Young People Today, most of the things that are dying seem to have been destined for the grave in the first place (paper napkins? ugh). But take chain restaurants, the social glue that binds the disparate parts of our gigantic, spectacularly broken country together. Can millennials’ incredibly trendy tastes really be responsible for the death of a global industry largely owned by private equity investment firms and vast, publicly traded companies? Sure, why not?
In a much-publicized move earlier this summer, DineEquity decided to close more than 100 Applebee’s locations after a failed attempt to cater to “a more youthful and affluent demographic with a more independent or even sophisticated dining mindset,” in the words of CEO John Cywinski. To put it in non-corporate: Applebee’s couldn’t convince millennials to eat chicken wonton tacos or bacon-wrapped, sriracha-soaked shrimp-ball bonanzas — or whatever it was the executives thought millennials like to eat.
I asked David Henkes, a senior principal at the food-industry consulting group Technomic, What Millennials Really Want from their dining experiences. (I would really like to know, because I am a millennial.) His view, which his group’s research bears out, is that millennials “grew up in a much more food-savvy, food-sophisticated world,” and are “very nomadic, not very brand-loyal.” And after all, why would we be? “There’s so many more options than there were 15 to 20 years ago,” Henkes admitted, so people are “not necessarily willing to spend money on the cookie-cutter restaurants in suburbia.”
It’s not like we have the money to spend there, after all. In fact, it’s not an accident that the heyday of cookie-cutter, lightly themed casual dining was in the ’80s and ’90s: They’re an artifact of an America where markets were bullish, risk was good, and everybody was making money. In their aesthetics and culinary posturing, chain restaurants evoke a time and place when, for many, money seemed like a renewable resource; where taking out a second mortgage to refinance a major home renovation was a reasonable thing to do; when you really could shoot yourself out of a job cannon into JobLand; and, of course, before political correctness and identity politics began dividing the country over even the one thing that everybody comes together for, the NFL.
Casual dining is nostalgia, a world unmade when the housing market broke under the combined weight of the decisions of unscrupulous men in suits and the middle-class masses’ misplaced dreams of Scrooge McDuck wealth, or at least Scrooge McMansions. The world now, the one in which millennials have come of age (hi), is without wishful thinking or unlimited anything — except student loan debt — and where Eating Good in the Neighborhood is done in cramped, rented apartments that we’ll never own, from sea to oil-slicked sea. Besides, for a great many people, those better times channelled by the great chains never existed in the first place. The recession and its aftermath, in which only the rich grew richer, only unspooled the great lie they’d been telling themselves all along: that they could move up in America.
Much has been made of millennials and their preferences. This is natural; every generation since the advent of advertising gets the marketing it deserves, even if it takes the eggheads upstairs time to figure it out. It apparently must be repeated over and over again: The difference between young people today and the preceding two-ish generations is that millennials have largely grown up in a time of economic uncertainty due to rapacious and unregulated financial practices. The mini-recession in the early aughts, combined with the Great Recession in 2008, scarred an entire generation. Recent research out of a joint university initiative shows how rising income inequality has destroyed upward mobility; in real terms, that means millennials will be the first generation to earn less than their parents since the 1930s. It’s one thing to understand this intellectually, statistically, but it’s a totally different thing to feel, in your entire body, from your gut to your marrow, that your entire generation is totally fucked. An unscientific survey of Tumblr, where millennials love to congregate, suggests that millennials are coping by posting memes about stress, anxiety, depression, money, and death.
The weird thing is, even as they’re blamed for killing casual dining chains, brand equity for those same restaurants is actually increasing among millennials, at least according to the latest EquiTrend study from polling firm The Harris Poll. Millennials, who love #brands, love engaging with chains! They’re just not spending what little money they have there.
Of course, there are exceptions: I spoke with Matt Fuller, a millennial and a congressional reporter at the Huffington Post, who’s a self-described aficionado of casual dining chains. He started going as a kid in the ’90s, growing up in New Hampshire. “The act of going out to eat is the draw,” Fuller said. “It’s almost a nostalgia, too. I don’t think you go there for excellent food.” Fuller’s favorite places are Olive Garden — which is, in fact, doing surprisingly well with millennials since the chain decided to underprice its food to attract more customers, according to Gene Lee, CEO of Darden Restaurants, which owns the chain — and Chili’s. As a kid he used to go once a week, or once every two weeks; these days, though, Fuller sometimes visits them twice a week. For him, the best part about is how unpretentious they are.
But with most millennials, it probably pays to have at least a few pretensions. The typical on-trend restaurant — say, De Maria in New York City, which opened in February and defines itself as “the ultimate Downtown New York contemporary restaurant” — is all washed-out pastels, dramatic lighting, and spare, mid-century modern furniture. It is a place that adheres self-consciously to the minimalist school of Good Taste, where every dish can be shot from above, devoid of people. There is an awareness at these kinds of places that eating the food, as Fuller said, isn’t the point. The idea is to experience and be seen having that experience; the value proposition is in your ’gram’s location tag, because it signifies you’re living The Good Life — or, at least, the modern version thereof: grain bowls, turmeric, activated charcoal, and shrubs. Compare this to Applebee’s — all thick burgers and laughing people, shot from the side, as if a friend were taking the picture for Facebook. But it’s on Instagram! No wonder it’s dying.
Recently, I made a trip to Applebee’s with a friend who’s 38 — gen X, decidedly not a millennial — maybe someone who could see something validating about the place that I, a millennial, apparently cannot. Amit and I sat down at a booth in the back and ordered a round of Long Island iced teas before looking through the menus; if the point was to feel at home, in a neighborhood, this was a nice way to start. “It feels like I walked into Disneyland, but in a less smart, good, or thoughtful way,” Amit said. We decided to order the two-for-one entree and appetizer deal, which looked like the best value — a total dad move. We split an order of boneless chicken wings (“Asian” sauce), while I got the Bourbon Street Chicken + Shrimp, and he chose the 6 oz. USDA Choice Top Sirloin with green beans and mashed potatoes. Mine wasn’t bad, though somehow everything was simultaneously too salty and too sweet. It wasn’t much to look at, either; my meal was all browns and blacks and yellows, while Amit’s was the same, plus green and pasty white. It certainly wouldn’t translate to Online, although it did remind me of every meal I’ve eaten in suburban Texas.
My experience at Outback Steakhouse was much the same. I was with my friend Jazmine, 26 and definitely a millennial, who noted when she arrived that the M23 bus in Manhattan stopped directly outside. We ordered a round of Kiwi ’Ritas, which is a kind of margarita made with “tropical kiwi and real citrus juices hand-shaken” with tequila. They were cloyingly sweet, and had seemingly the same nutritional profile as the rest of the menu — every item was somehow around 1,000 calories, with 2,300 mg of sodium. On the other hand, our steaks, the Victoria’s Filet Mignon and the sirloin, were well-seasoned. The Bloomin’ Onion (1,950 calories) tasted exactly as I remembered: devoid of nutritional value, but fulfilling in a deeply spiritual way — in other words, like something from a state fair. An onion funnel cake, maybe.
If there was a difference between the experiences I had with a gen Xer and a Total Millennial, it wasn’t in the food, and if there’s a lesson in seeing two different generations overwhelm themselves with the bland too-muchness of casual dining, I’m not sure what it was. What I hadn’t remembered was how the food made me feel afterward. After our meal at Outback, Jazmine and I were left clutching our stomachs and wondering how we’d eaten something so devoid of #content that it left us feeling horrible as it went down. While culture has been predominantly visual since the mass uptake of television, smartphones et alia have taken that mainstream: Everyone has a high-definition camera now, and god forbid you look nutrient-deficient in a selfie.
American food culture has always been faddish, but recently the fads have started appearing more often. I think I blame Dominique Ansel, for delivering unto us the Cronut. Regardless, Instagram’s (unintentional) genius has been to make food broadly aspirational — divorcing it from that which defines it, the act of consumption. No matter how trendy chain restaurant menus become, they’ll always be limited by the idea that food is supposed to be eaten. (Yes, I am aware of how insane that sounds.) Also, because of how these kitchens prepare food, meals don’t come out looking like the beautifully staged creations we’ve been taught to expect by the visual culture of advertising and Instagram.
To be less flip about it, though, wellness culture is another reason chains are in trouble: People with means don’t want to eat a pile of fried onions that’s got almost no nutritional value — much less anti-inflammatory or detoxifying properties! — and is literally within 50 calories of the federal government’s suggested daily limit. Goop and its ilk emphasize the virtues of “clean eating,” of sketchy superfoods, of chia seeds, and of various superstitious practices that seemingly exist only to help quell one’s fear of death. Despite their occasionally local and organic ingredients, chain restaurants won’t be able to compete unless they too come up with a better way to sell you on a cure for living.
I was at a party the other day where I ran into an editor friend, Rachel, who’d asked what I was working on. Eventually we came to the topic of this essay; in reply, she said something like all millennials love an ironic bowl of pasta. Which is true enough. The larger implications of her point were more interesting, though. Associating with a brand is not the same as buying its products; millennials are also fickle consumers because we’ve grown up with so much choice. But here’s the thing: So many of us are part of the precariat that maximizing utility from commercial purposes is the norm — which is to say that us young folks are looking for value, not discounts. That can come from ironic consumption; Olive Garden’s offerings are best had with a knowing affect.
The media-created meme that’s arisen about millennials killing things — beer, napkins, Hooters, cereal, casual dining establishments, and motorcycles, and golf, to name a few — is fascinating, again, because of what it reveals. Young people’s generally decreased standard of living and the preferences they have developed as a result are destroying established industries, and older people don’t like it. But these are rational responses to economic anxiety. Everything from high rates of homeownership to Hooters came out of a middle-class prosperity that doesn’t really exist anymore, because the middle class doesn’t really exist in America anymore, especially not for the millennials who had to grow up without the comfort of the American Dream. Chains united America, but things were different then, and for millennials at least, they’re irreparably broken now.
It’s a shame. Even millennials love unlimited breadsticks.