Restaurateur Stephen Schrutt on What Makes Gen-Z Tick

Every generation brings change, but Generation Z has an important distinction: It’s the first generation to have grown up in the digital era and members have high standards for how to spend their time online.

While millennials are considered digital pioneers who grew up as social media developed and technology exploded, Gen-Zers, those born between 1997 and 2012, were born in the midst of these developments and matured into a ubiquitous social media environment, thus its preference for apps that bring restaurants to their fingertips.

Gen-Z is still outnumbered by both millennials and baby boomers, the two largest U.S. cohorts, but makes up about 20% of the population, numbering 68.2 million. It’s also much more diverse than its elders, bringing a different perspective to all aspects of life, poised to disrupt business approaches that have worked for decades.

“Gen-Z is the go-to age group to target when opening up new dining concepts,” Stephen Schrutt, CEO & founder of Hunger + Thirst Restaurant Group, told The Food Institute in an email interview. “Gen Z is focused on trends and experiences. The social media savvy generation live for concepts that are unique and memorable in all ways.”

Schrutt – whose company operates hotspots like Parks & Rec, Dirty Laundry, The Avenue and No Vacancy in the Tampa Bay, Florida, area – said Gen-Z diners focus on every aspect of the dining experience like the smell when they walk through the door and whether there’s a feeling of nostalgia. Then they focus on the service: Did it meet the expectations raised online?

This generation is both more critical and supportive.

“Gen Z is known to document everything, and their experience quickly becomes everyone else’s experience through social media. If something doesn’t align or is falsely promoted, they will be the first to call it out, and something hyped up could quickly turn into something overrated,” Schrutt said.

“With TikTok and IG reels becoming extremely popular, review-style videos showcase their exact experience, through their lens and give their audience insights into your concept. This gives other people insights into your dining concept, and could either drive immense traffic to your location, or it could make people not want to go.”

Technology will be key to restaurant evolution, with artificial intelligence allowing for immersive experiences that make diners feel they are somewhere completely different.

“Gen-Z loves to travel so it would be amazing for them to feel like they’re enjoying authentic Cacio e Pepe in Italy while they’re actually still in Tampa, Florida,” he said.

Schrutt predicts there will be fewer chain restaurants in the next five to 10 years and more “unique dining experiences that create a memorable cuisine worth documenting, rather than just a grab-and-go meal.”

“Gen Z cares more about quality than quantity which is why these unique dining experiences will also cater to more trendy food options that fit upcoming diets such as vegan, keto, paleo, etc. It is important to be inclusive of all kinds of diets to guarantee that there is something tasty and enjoyable for everyone on the menu,” he added.

Fast-food, however, will not go away. Schrutt said he thinks there always will be a demand for fast food, but it’s likely menu options will get healthier, and offerings will include higher quality ingredients.

“Gen-Z is a more health-focused generation that likes to consume light snacks and small meals rather than the more traditional three full meals a day,” Schrutt said. “Fast-food restaurants should have a variety of options to cater to this new preference.”

But there always will be a need for fast-food and technology will be integral to that as well, allowing diners to order ahead for pickup or to use delivery apps like Ubereats or Doordash to deliver higher quality food directly from a sit-down restaurant.

Outside factors also influence this generation’s choices. Both Subway and Oreo have done a good job of reeling in Gen-Zers with their approach to the community and the planet.

“They trust these brands and feel heard by them. Each of these brands also has a big focus on the community and makes a significant impact,” Schrutt said, noting Gen-Z is concerned about the community and the planet and more likely to support companies that both give back to the community and support the environment.

“As the owner of Hunger Thirst Group, my community matters to me. They are the backbone of what I do, and I always ensure if I am benefitting from them,  I am giving back as much as I can. Community impact is huge, and I have developed so much love for my community. … Without them, there would be no me. They are the drivers of success for each of my creative dining concepts, and they are a crucial part of Hunger Thirst Group, from the inside out.”