By Dax Schaefer, corporate executive chef and director of culinary innovation at Asenzya Inc.

Move aside, Millennials, there’s a new generation quietly earning development and marketing dollars. Larger and more culinary educated than any generation before, this group is simply called iGeneration (or iGen). Some also refer to them as Generation Z. They have quietly been moving manufacturers’ new product development (NPD) needle for years. Ready or not, they are becoming self-aware as consumers. 

Who are they? And why are they important?

iGens are those born between the years 1995 and 2007. They are currently 12 to 24 years of age, and they’re the largest generation since the Baby Boomers. 

The fact that their numbers in the United States continue to grow through immigration combined with the increasing mortality rate of Baby Boomers mean that iGen is on pace to become the largest generation of consumers in America. By 2020, this generation will account for 40% of all consumers

They also are the first generation of digital natives, as they have never known life without smartphones and other smart devices. Millennials were merely exposed to technology at a young age, whereas iGen was born into it. Partially raised by social media channels like YouTube, this generation is comfortable with the process of self-educating and knows how to quickly find the information they need. 

Avoid a knee-jerk reaction

As a society, we do not know much about iGen yet. However, we do know that this group is already forming their opinions and that their commercial importance has been felt over the past two decades in the form of family influencers.

According to Mintel Group Ltd, 62% of parents said their iGen children ask for groceries by brand names. This has influenced the way parents buy ingredients and pick restaurants for their families. Companies who recognize this relationship can capitalize by aiming their marketing to iGens and by building loyalty through providing products that combine the comfort of what they ate as children with a low price.  

A generation looking for experiences

A quick scroll through Instagram, YouTube, or Snapchat also will tell you a lot about this rising generation. They are hyper-exposed to beautiful pictures of food, including an obscene 12 patty cheeseburger. They are streaming giants, spending hours each week consuming visual content online. Their pop culture icons come from apps like YouTube rather than TV shows. The most popular icons are called “influencers,” who become famous for sharing photos and videos of their experiences in the real world. iGen is a visual bunch who desire experiences over physical possessions.

How will this affect future culinary trends?

This addiction, or love, of consumable social media will help speed the culinary trend cycle far beyond what it is today. 

As the iGen continues to spend hours each day following favorite influencers and communicating to incredibly large online social circles, they will be exposed to food they’ve never heard of. This constant streaming of social media will expose them to international travel that may manifest itself in an obsession with approachable international street food. What starts out as a local food truck’s daily special has the potential to reach hundreds, or even thousands, of phones across the country in mere hours. Thus, culinary microtrends will begin to move at speeds believed impossible only a few years ago. This could potentially open doors to continued and deepened interest in ethnic cuisine. The world’s foods could become very approachable, very fast — almost to the point that no cuisine will feel foreign.  

While social media may have taught them it is the experience they should chase, it has also taught them that sharing is fun. You can see this effect in the rise of shareable plates at quick service restaurants (QSRs) over the past few years. It’s not uncommon to see groups of teenagers sitting at a table around a few small plates or appetizers so they can try various dishes. 

In a world that can feel mass produced, iGen wants their meals to be customizable so they feel a little bit more special. How can you give them the experience of it being just for them? Consider special regional wrappers, online ordering, or printing their name on it. The products that find a way to make the dish feel unique to them can benefit the brand.

One last big trend is that iGen wants their purchases to have a greater impact in a philanthropic way. They will look to spend their money with companies that give part of the profit to a cause they identify with. It’s a win-win. This generation is more socially aware, therefore more likely to donate and do something good for the world. If you could help feed the hungry by buying a pizza, why wouldn’t you? 

This technology-based generation is entering the workforce, gaining their own disposable income, and most importantly for new product developers, making the move from mere influencer to the role of decision maker. It’s not a difficult prediction to make. They are moving out of their parents’ shadows and marketers will fawn over them. Do you know what they are looking for in a culinary experience? Developers would be wise to take heed of this group before their full attention turns from video games and candy to grocery shopping and recipe hunting.

Dax Schaefer is executive chef and director of culinary innovation at Asenzya Inc., a custom spice and seasoning company that specializes in flavor and function. Schaefer is a graduate of the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY and has extensive experience as a chef in both the manufacturing and restaurant arenas. Readers may contact him at (414) 764-1220 ext. 325, or at dax.schaefer@asenzya.com.