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Educated Urbanites: The New Foodies

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An expanding and tasteful demographic is garnering attention from full-service restaurants. Should you target them, too?
By Mary Avant April 2011

In 2009, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that more than 37 million people in the U.S. over the age of 25 now have a Bachelor’s degree. Many of these same people dwell in big cities and urban areas, have a higher disposable income, and hold lofty standards when it comes to where and what they eat. Who are these people?

They’re called “educated urbanites,” and they’re a segment of the market to which many restaurateurs have begun to pay closer attention. “They’re a more sophisticated component of the target market for restaurants,” says Gene Dillard, president of foodservice marketing firm, FoodWise Group. “They have diverse interests, and they’re probably more inclined to try new things.”

“They take full advantage of living in the city and go out to eat regularly,” says Linda Duke, a restaurant consultant with Duke Marketing. “Educated urbanites pay a premium for convenience in their lifestyles, and they look for restaurants that can deliver on this.”

Duke says educated urbanites demand not just ordinary, but extraordinary experiences when dining out and “want to patronize restaurants that will allow them “high maintenance services with a smile.”

Discriminating Diners

Often called “foodies,” Dillard says this audience is “more discriminating in their tastes” and takes pride “in their judgment and finding new restaurants that are interesting to them and their friends.”

For restaurants, this cultivated taste and penchant for experimenting when it comes to food choice can provide a challenge, especially in big cities like New York and Chicago, where diners could literally eat at a different restaurant every night and never run out of choices.

“I think you have to continually keep their interest,” Dillard says, “so that may mean menu updates and doing everything possible to keep the dialogue fresh with these urbanites because they are discriminating and they have lots of choices and they do experiment with them. To keep them loyal, you have to work hard to keep their attention.”

This loyalty, Dillard says, comes primarily from the ability to deliver on service and quality, something that “is probably ahead of price consideration for the educated group,” he says.

Ping Pong Dim Sum, which markets to educated urbanites, found an “intuitive” way to keep a check on this kind of premium service, says Myca Ferrer, sales and marketing manager for the Washington, D.C., restaurant. Ping Pong customers mark their orders down on tally sheets—like the ones used at many sushi restaurants—that include a mini-questionnaire at the top of the sheet.

“People can check off if they’re in a rush; if they’re celebrating something; if they want a little bit of privacy; if they’re thirsty, to keep the drinks coming,” Ferrer says. This questionnaire helps wait staff gauge what kind of experience the guest is looking for and guarantee services that will meet these needs.

Capitalizing on Connections

Ping Pong is faced with the task of reaching out to a very specific and defined subset of educated urbanites. “Around 60 percent of our guests are 25 to 35,” Ferrer says. Most of them are girls, he explains, who work at public relations and marketing firms.

The reason Ping Pong was originally attracted to this segment of the market, he says, was precisely because of its power and influence. “They’re opinion leaders. They’re very visible in the community, and they’re connected.”

And this connection can be a form of marketing in itself. Dillard says that because urbanites are more often part of community organizations, if you can engage these people with the restaurant and develop a real relationship with them, then they and their friends and their groups will tend to frequent that restaurant again and again.

It’s this word of mouth marketing that makes educated urbanites—while a challenge to capture and retain—an influential market.

Promotions can be used to that end, and can be exciting, but they can also be over-relied upon, says Jeff Carl, chief marketing officer for Tavistock Restaurants.

Word of mouth marketing is a better tool to rely on, he points out. “The great restaurants are all about providing that extraordinary experience so everyone else tells all their friends, etc. That’s the best, if you will, promotion that any restaurant can have.”

It’s All About the Experience

Tavistock owns several fine-dining restaurants in major cities across the U.S. that cater to the educated urbanite audience, including Chicago-based ZED45. Carl says that it’s the “incredible experience”—what they also call the “ZED experience”—that keeps educated urbanites coming back for more.

“It’s not about staying on trend or trying to chase trends,” Carl says. “It’s about experience. It’s about connecting emotionally with the guests. It’s about making them feel like you’re in your own living room, as a guest, offering the best of whatever you have in the house.”

This includes specially prepared fish, poultry, lamb, and beef, all served tableside throughout the course of the meal. Carl says it’s the diner’s ability to control the meal that keeps them hooked.

“We will order our service in any way they choose. We invite guests to engage in our service,” Carl says. “Our service is geared to adapt to how they want to experience their evening—just as you would in your own living room. If somebody wanted to start with the main course and then go have a salad, be our guest.”

ZED45 also counts its adaptability as a feature that pleases the sometimes-picky urbanites.

“We try to offer a set of experiences that meet the needs of this community,” Carl says. “You want to come in for a quick bite, or do you want to have a party of 200? We can do that easily, as an individual or as a large group.

“The experience adjusts fluidly to party size, and that’s the urbanite,” he says. “Sometimes you’re by yourself, and sometimes you have a big group. And that’s why ZED is so perfectly situated for this market.”

For Ferrer and Ping Pong, this captivating experience comes through making diners feel like they’re a part of the Ping Pong team. The restaurant does samplings in the restaurant every week, where diners are able to provide feedback on the different dishes and drinks that they test.

“Letting them know that their opinion makes a difference as far as what we put on the menu and what we’re going to sell them makes them feel good,” Ferrer says. “People like to know that their opinion matters, and we definitely give them many platforms to do that.”

Nailing the Marketing Message

Dillard says that emphasizing the “hip niche of whatever restaurant style” a particular restaurant has will “appeal stronger to the younger demographic.” And because educated urbanites tend to fall in this range, reaching them often involves employing social media.

“I think having the right message positioning to the younger audience [is] important, to be real deliberative about that,” he says. “And then to use social media to the max.”

When using these methods, Jim Sellers, vice president of marketing services for customer analytics firm Buxton, says restaurants need to keep a few things in mind, including communicating with consumers in the medium of their choice and using a language that the target market relates to.

“The more affluent target audiences … perceive themselves as unique and discriminating,” Sellers says. “Your marketing message should reflect the tone and the tenor to communicate how your restaurant concept is also unique and discriminating.” Sellers says that medium and language account for 25 percent of the success or failure of a marketing campaign.

At Ping Pong, Ferrer uses multiple methods to engage his consumers. “Educated urbanites like to hear about the same thing in multiple ways,” he says. If customers feel like they’re the “first people to find out about specials we’re doing in the restaurant or promotions that are going on … the response generally has a much better result.”

This is why Ping Pong not only connects with fans on Facebook and sends out a weekly newsletter detailing happenings at the restaurant and in the community, but also uses forms of in-store marketing, like the samplings mentioned previously.

But no matter what the message or what medium restaurant marketers employ when it comes to reaching educated urbanites, Duke says the most important thing is to know who the customers are and what they want.

“Understanding customer needs and wants is imperative to serving today’s educated restaurant guests,” Duke says. “Operators must clearly define who and what their menu and establishment stands for and who they are trying to attract.

“For targeting educated urbanites, the investment will be worth the reward for those restaurants that make the effort.”