Opinion: Maike Nuyken on Gen Z and restaurant service quality

Gen Z is the largest generation globally, representing significant and growing spending power. Crucially, for hospitality, Gen Z has higher expectations. Our guest columnist poses what that means for the quality of restaurant service

This month, I have the honor of filling in for Marius and writing the monthly Foodservice Consultant column for a change. The reason and occasion for this is my recent publication Generation Z’s Perspective on Restaurant Service Quality in the peer-reviewed journal Research in Hospitality Management. This article is an adapted version of my master’s thesis and was co-authored by Doron Zilbershtein and Abdul Rauf.

Since understanding and reaching Gen Z is a relevant topic for all those active in hospitality, Marius extended me this opportunity and platform to summarize and explain the findings of my research for the Foodservice Consultant readers.

Of course, picking Gen Z as the subject of my research was a no brainer. Not only does everything we do at 1520 revolve around Millennials and Gen Z, Gen Z is also the largest generation globally, representing significant and growing spending power, both directly, as well as indirectly through influencing their families’ buying decisions. Crucially, for hospitality, Gen Z has higher expectations compared to other generations and is seen as demanding, making this generation a tough nut to crack for service providers in terms of reach and retention. With my research, I thus wanted to provide further insight for academics as well as practitioners, and managers alike into this interesting and very important generational cohort and their unique expectations.

Collecting data

To understand how Gen Z diners evaluate restaurant service quality, and hence their expectations, I conducted a multi-case study employing seven semi-structured interviews to collect data among members of Gen Z. I used the theoretical framework of DINESERV, a widely researched and used scale to measure customer expectations and perceptions of restaurant service quality, developed in the 90s. Sounds very boring, I know, but this allowed me to compare Gen Z’s expectations to previous generations and pinpoint differences, and that is where it gets interesting:

While previous generations evaluate their dining experience based on the dimensions of ‘Tangibles’, ‘Reliability’, ‘Responsiveness’, ‘Assurance’ and ‘Empathy’, my findings suggest that Gen Z uses additional dimensions of ‘Ambiance’, ‘Offer’ and ‘Image’. Moreover, the dimension of ‘Empathy’ gained more importance for those young consumers.

In addition to visible factors of the ambiance in a restaurant (‘Tangibles’), my research indicates that intangible factors, or the character and feel (dare I say vibes?) of a restaurant are just as important to Gen Z. For them, the atmosphere, as well as the music are important aspects impacting their experience, hence the new dimension of ‘Ambiance’. 

Moreover, Gen Z seems to have a newfound interest in the basics, that is, the actual ‘Offer’ of the restaurant. They are not only interested in how the service is delivered, but critically in what they receive. Food as the core product, as well as the price are essential to how they evaluate their experiences.

Not surprising for a hyperconnected and digitally native generation, an attractive online presence and positive online reviews also impact Gen Z’s restaurant service quality perceptions, leading to the newfound dimension of ‘Image’.

The need for belonging

In contrast, and a bit unexpected perhaps, given that members of Gen Z are commonly seen as absolute digital natives, never looking up from their phones, was the special importance that participants assigned to interpersonal aspects of the service, such as friendliness, care and attention of the employees, as well as personal rapport. However, this actually makes sense once you get to know this generation better, as it goes hand in hand with their need for security and belonging.

Now it has to be said that, due to the research design, my findings cannot be generalized, but nonetheless, they provide interesting insights and potential implications for managers in the industry. Through the research, we get an idea into Gen Z’s evaluations of restaurants and into what is important to these young consumers. The findings provide restaurant managers and owners with an understanding of the expectations of Gen Z. Proactive measures to improve service quality for these young and influential consumers might be more effective when the newly identified service quality criteria are used to guide the efforts, rather than relying on existing models that inadequately reflect the expectations of Gen Z. Crucially, considering food and price as part of the service quality that restaurants offer has important managerial implications.

Maybe we should spend less on gimmickry and chasing trends and more on delivering an excellent product? To me, my research provides a nudge back to basics and authentic, true hospitable service, and that is something to welcome with open arms.

Maike Nuyken

The co-owner & founder of Millennial & Gen Z marketing and employer branding agency 1520 in Apeldoorn, the Netherlands, alongside Marius Zürcher, Maike Nuyken was a participant at FCSI’s ‘Millennials’ focused roundtable at INTERGASTRA and a speaker at FCSI workshops about industry trends

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