LAS VEGAS — If you don't ask a question, you won't get an answer. So chef Jon Ashton prowled the stage, trying to gauge his audience.
The room was full of food bloggers and writers who traveled from across the country to the futuristic Aria resort to cover the 47th Pillsbury Bake-Off and learn about the newest consumer trends.
“How many here were born after 1982?” Ashton asked in his sing-song Liverpudlian accent. In a room of about 80 people, two young women shyly raised their hands.
“It's OK to admit it,” he said. The women giggled.
The chef, sporting a stylish hairstyle, GQ-worthy clothes and thick-framed eyeglasses that made him look like a young scientist, then unloaded a truckload of research about the age group we've come to know as millennials.
The question Ashton came to answer: What drives the appetites of that generation?
This is the group raised on the Culture Wars and the economic boom of the 1990s. They came of age beneath the shadow of Sept. 11 and amid the country's resulting financial turmoil. They are the second-largest population group in the United States, behind the baby boomers, with a collective annual buying power of $80 billion.
Yes, they are the generation of Miley Cyrus and Snooki. No, thank goodness, that fact doesn't define them.
Research conducted by LifeCourse Associates on behalf of the Smucker's brand, for which Ashton is a spokesman, revealed that 70 percent of millennials have volunteered for charity. Eight out of 10 have donated to charitable organizations.
If there is a word that defines their appetites, it is “customization.” Due in part to a lifespan shared with the Internet and hundreds of cable channels, they crave variety and immediacy in their food in a way that no other generation has before.
Where boomers were raised on homespun macaroni and cheese, millennials' comfort food includes sushi. Their No. 1 condiment is salsa, not ketchup — a reflection on the fact that theirs is the most ethnically diverse generation in our nation's history.
They were fed a steady diet of Food Network and learned to cook by watching Emeril Lagasse instead of Grandma. When they're inspired by recipes, the dishes come from Twitter, Instagram and Facebook instead of heirloom cookbooks.
Eighty percent said they were more inclined to like a brand that uses social media, and 40 percent were more likely to check out the brand on Facebook and Twitter. They want to do more than shop. They want a buying experience.
Millennials are willing to pay for fresh, healthy food in order to align themselves with the “food movement.” But they are less loyal to brands and more curious about finding new places to get the foods they want.
When millennials grocery shop, they work the perimeter, where the freshest ingredients are found. They also are 40 percent more likely to try things no one else has tried. They eat at home and cook from scratch more than any generation.
According to Splendid Communications, they crave diversity of flavors when they eat away from home. Four out of 10 order something different every time they go to a restaurant. They dig communal tables that play to their social natures. Sixty-eight percent will ask friends before choosing a restaurant. They eat smaller meals, they splurge on a nice meal when money is tight and they more frequently eat at nontraditional hours of the day.
More than any other generation, food is a personal statement of identity for millennials, one that speaks to who they want to be as much as who they are.
The restaurants and groceries and bars and bakeries and food trucks that cater to their insatiable appetite for variety and personal engagement will be the ones that thrive, Ashton said. It's the difference between ordering a cup of coffee and ordering a triple venti sugar-free, nonfat, no foam extra caramel with whipped cream macchiato. With your name written on the cup.
No question about it.