For millennials, food isn’t just food. It’s community.

October 22, 2013

Four years ago, as restaurants were watching their sales drop by double digits during the great recession, the owners of Silver Diner were grappling with their own response to the crisis: Would they follow the pack and cut costs to survive the downturn, or would they attempt to reimagine the diner experience for the emerging millennial generation? The latter option held the potential of great reward. Millennials — or generation Y or echo boomers — are those born, depending on who’s doing the polling, anywhere from 1978 to 2000. Their population is reported to rival that of the baby boomers. By some estimates, approximately 80 million Americans call themselves millennials, about a million more than those graying rebels known as boomers. That’s 80 million mouths to feed, from coast to coast. Robert Giaimo, co-founder of Silver Diner, made the decision to revamp his small chain for a generation that was looking for more than an all-day pancake breakfast and a bottomless cup of coffee. Giaimo and fellow founder chef Ype Von Hengst had been down a similar path — in 2007, they expelled trans-fats from their kitchens — but this time they planned a major menu overhaul. They brought the farm-to-table movement to the oversize booths and gleaming counters of the suburban diner. The pair introduced eggs, beef, bison meat, goat cheese, turkey and even beer and wine from local sources. They later went further: They started actively catering to those on vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free diets.


Scene at DoiMoi restauranton 14th Street in Washington, D,C. (Evy Mages/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

“Millennials have less money, but they want to use the money that they have to make a difference,” Giaimo says. “We’ve been serving yuppies. Now we had to serve their kids with an experience they could relate to.”

The shift proved so successful, Giaimo says, that the 24-year-old chain is moving into the next phase. The founders are working with Washington-based Core Architecture + Design to craft a 21st-century diner for millennials.

Called just Silver, the restaurant will have only an echo of the chrome-and-neon ambiance that has defined diners for decades. Silver will feature outdoor communal tables, a full-service bar (with“spirited” shakes), LED lighting and finishes of marble, zinc and wood. Just as important, Silver will be located where the millennials live and work: in a high-density neighborhood, not the expansive ’burbs. Giaimo has not signed a lease for Silver, but he’s reviewing spaces in Penn Quarter, Dupont Circle and the 14th Street corridor, among others, for the $3 million project that he hopes to launch in 2015.

“It just takes it to the next level in order to serve the millennials as adults,” Giaimo says.

The Silver Diner’s metamorphosis may be the most dramatic, but it’s just one example of how Generation Y is reshaping what we eat, how we eat and where we eat. Academics and social scientists have spent countless hours trying to determine the wants, needs and habits of this generation, and their research is often a fascinating and contradictory pile of facts and generalizations.

Researchers do seem to agree on one thing that separates millennials from earlier generations: They are less black-and-white in their thinking. Take, for example, a recent study by the advertising giant BBDO. It notes that 50 percent of millennials refer to themselves as “foodies,” but 60 percent of those self-identified foodies still visit fast-food restaurants at least once a week (compared with 48 percent for older adults).

Other sources suggest that millennials are “community-oriented” and self-centered at the same time. According to research by the Center for Culinary Development, millennials also “value authenticity above almost all else. If a sandwich is billed as a Vietnamese banh mi, they expect it to look, feel and taste like an authentic banh mi.” But the same research then suggests that millennials are “not necessarily staunch purists about form and function. They have a soft spot for ethnic mash-ups, which combine authentic elements of two or more ethnic cuisines in familiar, accessible formats.”

Millennials, in short, may be the most prodded, poked and examined generation in history, and countless people in the hospitality industry are trying to figure out how to make these folks happy. Sometimes a restaurateur’s efforts are conscious, like those of the Silver Diner’s owners, and sometimes they’re just the result of a restaurant run, at least partially, by millennials themselves.

Creating a community

Mark Kuller is no millennial. He’s the 60-year-old owner behind Proof and Estadio. Two years ago, Kuller took a trip out West to scout a few eateries. On the same night in Los Angeles, he stopped at Lukshon, chef Sang Yoon’s striking temple to modern Asian cooking, and A-Frame, chef Roy Choi’s ultra-casual restaurant with unfinished picnic tables. Yoon’s place was dead; Choi’s was packed with 20-somethings well past 11 p.m. Kuller knew right then that his next restaurant, the Thai- and Vietnamese-accented Doi Moi, would need to split the difference between the two L.A. operations to attract both the Capitol Hill and 14th Street types.

A boomer who likes fine wine and luxe dinners, Kuller figured that one key to appealing to Gen Y was, interestingly enough, finding the right furniture for them to sit on. He ordered Italian pressed-wood-and-laminate chairs that look like U.S. classroom chairs that spent a semester in China. Placed in Doi Moi’s mosaic-floored dining room, within sight of the bustling open kitchen, the chairs are part of a space that exudes a breezy energy. Millennials have already started trickling into the place, Kuller reports, although that might have as much to do with chef Haidar Karoum’s cooking, which is sort of authentic and sort of fusion-y.

If Kuller had to strain somewhat against his upscale instincts in order to carve a niche with millennials, the owners behind Sweetgreen had to do little more than probe their own thoughts. Sweetgreen, the ever-expanding chain devoted to health-conscious food and drink, is unadulterated Gen Y. Founded by three Georgetown classmates — all millennials — Sweetgreen is devoted to organic and sustainable ingredients; its 20 locations (soon to be 21, with the forthcoming McLean store) also take pains to reduce their environmental footprint: They boast energy-efficient lighting, reclaimed woods and wind-energy credits to offset their power use.

But more than that, Sweetgreen founders Nic Jammet, Nathaniel Ru and Jonathan Neman have worked to create a community, one built on a few core values, a desire to eat healthfully and an unwavering commitment to live it up. That is, arguably, how millennials differ from boomers, notes Ru. For boomers, entertainment often went hand in hand with drinking and drugs. Millennials prefer to consume their pop music with a bowl of organic mesclun salad. The evidence? The chain’s Sweetlife Festival, an annual music-and-food event that now attracts 20,000 people to the Merriweather Post Pavilion.

“We just kind of created a community and lifestyle for ourselves,” Ru says. “It’s what we wanted.”

Unlike some other companies, Sweetgreen has an ability to gauge, with a certain precision, its appeal with millennials. In February, the owners launched a Sweetgreen Rewards application for iPhone and Android. As the name implies, the app rewards customers who frequent the chain. For every $99 spent via the app, a customer will receive $9 in credit; when diners reach green status ($100 in purchases), they receive a free salad every year on their birthday, and 1 percent of each subsequent transaction is donated to a Sweetgreen-selected charity that supports healthful eating in schools.

Since the app launched, Jammet says, 50,000 people have downloaded it. One in five transactions now goes through the app, he adds, which gives the Sweetgreen owners a sizable snapshot of their clientele. The majority of app users are females, age 18 to 35, Jammet notes. They are, in other words, millennials.


Customers sit on the patio at the Barcelona Wine Bar on 14th Street in Washington, D.C. (Evy Mages/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

Community, however, can be fostered in ways other than a festival, a philosophical treatise and a smartphone app. You need look no further than the communal tables and small plates, those dishes designed for sharing, that have become increasingly common in restaurants in the area. A list of places trading on one (or both) of those trends would be almost impossible to compile but would include such places as Zaytinya , Masa 14, Green Pig Bistro, Rustico, Drafting Table, Barcelona Wine Bar & Restaurant and countless other establishments.

The communal table, says Michael Babin, founder of the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, simply fits the way millennials like to eat: in groups, often with little planning. Social media, whether Twitter or Facebook, allow these diners to quickly form a small posse that can descend on a restaurant. Communal tables can help accommodate them.

“They are able to organize a group in about 30 seconds to go do something,” says Babin.

Those communal tables also help create something that drives boomers crazy: noise. Perhaps nothing separates millennial diners from their middle-age counterparts faster than noise. Complaints about deafening restaurants, in fact, became so frequent that Post restaurant critic Tom Sietsema decided to add decibel ratings to his reviews in 2008. It’s rarely the millennials who fuss about the racket. The millennial embrace of noise might be due to the notion that, as some have noted, restaurants have replaced music clubs as venues where young adults establish their hipster cred.

It’s all about restaurants

Food, says Marjorie Meek-Bradley, 29, executive chef at Ripple in Cleveland Park, has become the dominant topic of conversation among her friends. And her friends, Meek-Bradley is quick to add, do not all toil in the restaurant industry. “You want to talk about the chefs that nobody’s heard about yet,” she says. Or the fabulous new restaurant you just tried in New York.

Similarly, lines outside restaurants are the 21st-century equivalent of the queues that used to form behind red-velvet ropes at clubs in the 1980s. Diners with creaky bones might hate to stand for hours for a seat at Toki Underground, chef Erik Bruner-Yang’s ramen shop on H Street NE, or at Little Serow, James Beard Award winner Johnny Monis’s northeastern Thai outlet on 17th Street NW. But the millennials just consider it part of the evening’s ad­ven­ture.

“The younger diners,” says Bruner-Yang, 29, pure millennial, “may not be married or don’t have kids, so making a day out of something like waiting on Toki or drinking for a couple of hours. . . is a non-issue to them.”

If rock-and-roll has its stars, so does the restaurant scene inspired by a millennial generation raised on the Food Network. Many of these culinary stars toil in kitchens far removed from Washington — if the chefs toil at all — but even the District’s modest allotment of celebrity cooks require the proper stage for their act. It’s called an open kitchen. You’ll find such playgrounds at Bryan Voltaggio’s Range, Mike Isabella’s Graffiato and Michel Richard’s Central , among other spots, though the odds are not good that the chefs in question will actually be cooking on any given night.

Open kitchens go “hand in hand with the celebrity chef,” Ripple’s Meek-Bradley says. “If you watch [chefs] on TV, it’s even better to watch them live.”

That notion of celebrity dovetails with millennials’ self-image. Experts routinely say that millennials see themselves as “special,” the result of a generation that could, at any minute, create a YouTube video that might go viral or launch a Twitter personality that might attract thousands of followers. Virtually every millennial thinks her or his experience is “super-relevant,” explains Allison Cooke, co-director of hospitality design for Core.

“It’s almost as if everyone thinks of themselves as a celebrity, so they can connect with the chef on some level,” she says.

That belief puts pressure on architects and designers to develop spaces that appeal to a group of young adults who already feel as if “they’ve seen it all,” Cooke says. “It’s more of a global world to them, and it’s harder to impress them.” If they don’t like something, she adds, they’ll Instagram it to friends, potentially putting a black mark on a restaurant before it has a chance to find its audience.

Which is the main reason why Core designers and the owners of Silver Diner want to get the Silver project’s details right. They all know it’s a delicate balance between honoring the spirit of the old diner while updating it for millennials who, as Cooke notes, “want to experience spaces that are projecting the lifestyle they want. It might not be the lifestyle that they’re living.”


Jessica Gibson enjoys a drink at the bar at DoiMoi restaurant. (Evy Mages/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

It’s hard to imagine millennials wanting to knock back a chocolate shake, spirited or otherwise, in a space that smacks of their grandparents’ generation, with jukeboxes on the table and daddy-o language on the menu. Millennials, after all, believe in the value of bikeshares, not muscle cars. Transforming that diner ethos into an ambiance this generation can embrace will take a deft touch, but you could argue that diners have a head start in one sense: They were the pioneers of placing cooks in front of their customers.

Updating the often garish diner and its classic open kitchen — open griddle? — for picky millennials will be among the keys to Silver’s success, because this generation “can spot a fake so far away,” says Cooke. “For them, they don’t want a Disney World experience. . . . They want something that feels like it’s been there forever.” As long as it doesn’t feel like a diner from the 1950s.

The New Washington: See the full collection

March of the Millennials

What matters to Millennials

Tim Carman serves as the full-time writer for the Post's Food section and as the $20 Diner for the Weekend section, a double duty that requires ingesting more calories than a draft horse.
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