Millennials Are Killing Restaurant Chains? Maybe, But That’s Not Their Fault [Opinion]

Millennials are killing “casual dining” restaurant chains like Buffalo Wild Wings and Applebee’s – that’s the theory put forth by a recent Business Insider article that’s reached nearly a million shares across social media since it was published on Saturday.

The claim is mostly predicated on a quote from Buffalo Wild Wings CEO Sally Smith, who told shareholders that “Casual-dining restaurants face a uniquely challenging market today.”

“Millennial consumers are more attracted than their elders to cooking at home, ordering delivery from restaurants and eating quickly, in fast-casual or quick-serve restaurants.”

To be fair to Smith, she’s not wrong. The millennial generation isn’t one that eats out often, and when they do, they usually go in for cheaper options.

But Smith, who makes about $4 million a year, seems to have missed something; to wit, maybe we shouldn’t be blaming millennials.

Here’s the thing. Millennials, as Complex notes, are the worst-paid generation since we started counting them, along with lower net worth and much higher debt, and in spite of being more highly-educated than ever. It’s easy to be derisive of millennials who “are more attracted… to cooking at home” if you don’t stop to consider that maybe, cooking at home is all that they can afford.

When this is your disposable income for the month, 'casual dining' probably isn't in the cards.
When this is your disposable income for the month, 'casual dining' probably isn't in the cards. [Image by John Lund/Sam Diephuis/ThinkStock]

That’s exacerbated by our social welfare programs: in a lot of states, SNAP basically guarantees that you have to cook at home; “hot meals” and other prepared foods simply can’t be purchased with food stamps.


When millennials do have money to spend at a restaurant, well, a McDouble or McChicken, coming in at just over a dollar, sure beats the $20 price tag on a Buffalo Wild Wings combo, before drinks and tip.

Other factors come into play, too; one that the Business Insider article highlights is speed and convenience. Grocery stores, fast-food restaurants, meal delivery services, all come out ahead of casual dining in terms of both. But that’s a little misleading, too: millennials don’t look for speed, convenience, and home delivery as major factors because they’re lazy or entitled. Millennials look for speed, convenience, and home delivery because if they have the money to order food in the first place, at the minimum, they’re working a full-time job. Many are working more than one. And that includes families. When you work from six in the morning until six at night, for a lot of reasons, you’re not especially interested in taking the kids to a sit-down restaurant and waiting an hour for food.

And as someone who has, according to CNN Money, spoken out against a higher minimum wage before, as the CEO of a company who has, according to MLive, has been forced to pay out millions of dollars for underpaying workers, it may be time for Smith to pause and take stock.

America is a consumer economy which is rapidly running out of consumers. As the job market worsens, as wages continue to stagnate, as automation replaces workers and poverty rises, the corporations and lobbyists fighting against paying a living wage are orchestrating their own demise.

These proud McDonald's employees are putting any wages back into the business.
These proud McDonald's employees are putting any wages back into the business. [Image by Kevin Moloney/Getty Images]

“When Smith says that millennials tastes differ from what casual dining chains can offer, she’s avoiding a more blunt statement: that casual dining brands just aren’t cool any more,” says Business Insider.

But the problem for casual dining isn’t a lack of coolness. It’s a lack of time, energy, and disposable income amongst the next generation of workers – one that companies seem perfectly willing to scapegoat and treat as disposable even as the walls come down about their ears.

It may be trendy these days to blame millennials for your problems, but in the case of Corporate America, it’s just whistling past the graveyard.

[Featured Image by Scott Olson/Getty Images]