Jay Johnson loves food, especially fresh ingredients and locally sourced charcuterie plates. He dines out at least twice a week, keeping close tabs on the restaurant scene so he can be among the first through the doors of the hottest new eateries such as Borough, Smack Shack and Burch.
While his parents’ generation grew up with Kraft macaroni and cheese, T.G.I. Friday’s and the occasional special night out at Murray’s, Johnson and his peers were weaned on “Iron Chef,” a diverse array of ethnic restaurants and the books of food philosophers like Michael Pollan and Anthony Bourdain.
The results: They eat out — a lot. Haute has become hip.
A recent survey by the research firm Technomic found that 42 percent of millennials go out at least once a month to a fine dining restaurant, which is twice the rate for baby boomers. In fact, for many people born between 1980 and 2000, restaurants have replaced bars as their socializing hubs, said veteran food observer Andrew Zimmern.
“These young adults put food at the top of the list on how they spend their dollars,” said Zimmern, host of the Travel Channel’s “Bizarre Foods.” “They know the difference between garganelli and strozzapreti. Across the board, they are three times the gastronauts their parents are.”
Their appetites are changing the culinary landscape — driving the proliferation of restaurants, food trucks and farmers markets and elevating the status of local chefs. Their fascination with food might be one of the defining characteristics of this eat-and-tweet generation.
“More and more young people are taking a proactive approach, dining out, writing blogs, supporting food trucks, supporting farmers markets, working in restaurants or just paying attention to where and how they eat,” said Charlie Broder, 25, a manager of Broder’s Pasta Bar in Minneapolis. “I believe the twenty- and thirty-somethings have made dining out part of an unseen social status. Where you eat has become the new cool.”
That’s certainly the case for marketing professional Jenna Bennett. When she moved to the Twin Cities three years ago, she discovered “a foodie community unlike anything I’d ever seen,” including in Chicago. Now Bennett, 30, chronicles her every dining experience on Instagram, Foursquare and Twitter, where she has more than 4,300 followers.
But for these young urbanites, it’s not just about eating.
“It’s a big social thing,” said Johnson, 30. “But we’re also taking care of ourselves through food. It’s not low-cal necessarily, but eating real food. That’s what we do.”
As they age and their paychecks grow, their focus on food is likely to grow.
According to Jack Gerten, who manages more than 20 farmers markets, millennials are “very mindful of what they’re eating and their health. It’s a big movement that’s only going to get stronger.”
As little as a decade ago, you could count the number of fine-dining destinations in Minneapolis on one hand. But the city has seen a 58 percent rise in fine-dining restaurants (those that sell wine) in 10 years.
Star chefs Alex Roberts, Isaac Becker, Stewart Woodman and Don Saunders each have two or more outlets, often with very different price points: Roberts’ Restaurant Alma offers a $48 three-course meal, but at Brasa entrees are under $10. Lenny Russo, one of the strongest advocates of local sourcing, has added a market adjacent to his Heartland restaurant in St. Paul. Other restaurateurs, such as Saffron’s Sameh Wadi, have opened food trucks.
In 2007, the only local food trucks sold Popsicles and drove around blaring “Pop Goes the Weasel.” Last year, more than 50 food trucks lined Twin Cities streets, serving everything from kafta meatball sandwiches to cow’s head tacos.
Stores focusing solely on cheese, olive oils and vinegars, or meat from local sustainable farms, are popping up. Kristin Tombers, owner of Clancey’s Meats & Fish in the Linden Hills neighborhood of Minneapolis, said that “easily half” of her clientele is 35 and under. And they’re passionate — rather than casual — customers.
“One young woman was just in here asking for a pig tongue,” Tombers said. “We also have a guy who walks out of here with tears in his eyes because he can get a bag of rabbit livers, kidneys and hearts.”
Paying it forward
Going to restaurants and buying organic, exotic ingredients to cook at home costs money, of course.
Johnson said he spends at least 20 percent of his income on food. But he maintains that he and his food-centric peers are spending now to save later.
“People in my generation have read [Pollan’s] ‘In Defense of Food’ and seen ‘Super Size Me,’ ” he said. “They have come to realize that if we spend a little more on what we put into our bodies, we’re better off than if we try to fix it later.”
That thinking hasn’t convinced everyone.
“It is very easy to rationalize [that] eating healthier leads to reduced health care expenses later in life,” said Joe Pitzl, a certified financial planner with Edina-based Intelligent Financial Strategies. “However, under that same ideology, one should probably reason they are going to live longer, as well, requiring a larger asset base to retire on. That actually requires them to save more — not less — as the additional savings needed to live a few more years is likely to exceed health care savings.”
Still, Johnson insists that eating well isn’t just a phase millennials are going through. “As we grow up and our income goes up, this is going to get bigger,” he said.
There are signs that the focus on food is filtering down to the youngest members of the demographic.
Russo said that more than a few of his chef’s table guests (where diners eat a higher-priced multi-course meal in the kitchen) “aren’t old enough to legally drink alcohol.”
Broder has a name for them: “foodie savants.”
“My 13-year-old cousin puts on dinner parties for 10 of his friends just for fun,” he said. “I am really happy to be part of this ‘foodie’ generation. But I really think that it’s the teens and preteens of today that will dramatically change the way food is presented, consumed and enjoyed.”