VIDEO: Appetite for healthy, vegan options among Millennials, Gen Z shaking up food industry in Northern Nevada

Jamie Woods, line cook at Liberty Food & Wine Exchange, fillets a Pacific Red Snapper.

Jamie Woods, line cook at Liberty Food & Wine Exchange, fillets a Pacific Red Snapper.

RENO, Nev. — “We sell a ton of jackfruit tacos,” says Justin Zuniga, line cook at Homegrown Gastropub, as he dices up the pinkish fruit native to southwest India.

Soon, Zuniga will heat up the seasoned jackfruit in a skillet, tuck the meat substitute into corn tortilla shells, spoon on mango salsa, sprinkle on sprouts, and drizzle on avocado almond sauce.

It’s a Thursday evening in early August inside the sweltering kitchen of one of Midtown Reno’s newest eateries, which is serving up its popular vegan tacos to a member of perhaps its largest — and arguably most important — group of customers: Generation Z (those born after 1995).

“We want to have as many options available to vegetarians and vegans as anybody out there,” shrugs Zuniga as he finishes plating the jackfruit tacos. “To try to make them feel just as at home when they’re here.”

Fact is, Gen Z, which makes up a quarter of the U.S. population, is the most ethnically diverse population group in American history.

And they like to go out to eat. Gen Zers, on average, spend 20 percent more on eating out than Millennials (those in the age range of 22-36) did at their age, according to a report by Piper Jaffray.

What’s more, teens and young adults eat out differently. According to the NDP Group, Gen Z and Millennials embraces more fresh, healthy food choices than previous generations. Boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964), meanwhile, embrace more convenience foods to meet their busy lifestyles, according to NDP.

Further, more than 70 percent of Gen Zers influence their family’s spending, according to a 2017 report from International Business Machines Corp. and the National Retail Federation. With that kind of industry sway, restaurants are taking close stock of the next generation’s cravings.

Locally sourced focused

Dave Holman, executive chef at Campo in downtown Reno, has observed the shift closely. Young adults, he said, want to make sure that they believe in what they’re eating and putting into their bodies.

With that, Holman said catering to the Millennials and Gen Zers is especially important as a restaurant is building a business, adding: “you always want to continue to build new clientele.”

Renowned Reno restaurateur Mark Estee, chef and owner of Liberty Food & Wine Exchange in downtown Reno, said his eatery was built on being locally sourced for that reason, despite the extra costs to the business.

“They (Millennials and Gen Zers) care about where their food comes from,” he said. “They’re probably one of the first generations that are like, ‘where’d that bacon come from?’ ... versus factory-farming bacon.

“It costs more money, takes a little work, but it’s worth it,” he continued. “Because we feel that’s what one of the cornerstones of our business is.”

Though the young adult-driven mobile food delivery boom may suggest less people are dining in for meals, Holman feels that the younger, health-conscious demographics still want to go out to eat.

“I think that’s really something that will never change,” Holman said. “They still want to be part of the dining scene, but they want to make sure that they’re eating healthy. Or at least have better choices. That’s where I think restaurants really survive in catering to those markets.”

Holman continued: “Millennials are very important in some aspects, but it’s the next generation. We want to make sure we continue to build Campo for the long term. And the only way to do that is to continue reinventing yourself, stay current on trends, and be the trendsetter and not the actual follower.”

Vegan ventures

Spencer Shea, owner of Homegrown Gastropub, has his finger on the pulse of what the young generation values. Vegan options. Locally sourced. Fresh produce.

“My biggest thing is I always wanted to serve organic food, that was my guideline,” Shea said. “So we also offer a lot of vegan options, too. A lot of people under 25 … there’s a lot of vegan people out there. And it’s increasing more and more all the time.”

He’s not wrong.

Projected to account for 40 percent of all consumers by 2020, Gen Zers are sinking their teeth into the food trends that replace animal products with plant-based alternatives, like jackfruit.

As a result, the vegan meat market, driven by Gen Z, is expected to reach $5.2 billion globally within two years, according to Allied Market Research.

Zooming in on the U.S., there’s been a 600 percent increase in people identifying as vegans over the last three years, according to a report by GlobalData. In 2014, only 1 percent of consumers claimed to be vegan. In 2017, that number grew to 6 percent.

“I get a lot of younger clientele from (vegan options), because a lot of them are going in that direction,” Shea said. “People appreciate that a lot.”

Not only do many young adults veer more toward veganism, but the Gen Zers, even more so than Millennials, want to try new things and customize their experiences. Flavors are no exception.

Holman said Campo, for instance, buys whole animals and finds creative ways to use all pieces of the animal that would normally be thrown away or shipped to other markets overseas.

“We’re talking about a lot of tongue and bone marrow and secondary cuts — the organ meats, like kidney and liver — not too many restaurants use those,” Holman said. “But we pride ourselves on using those cuts and we offer them on the menu here. It also reduces our carbon footprint to use that whole animal.”

He said they take the same approach with vegetables.

“We use peashoots, we use the different parts of the cauliflower, not just the florets,” he said. “We’re trying to use everything that comes from the garden to create really delicious food and less food waste.

“I think that’s very important to the next generation as well.”

The other side

Not all Northern Nevada restaurants are actively working to build their next generations of customers. Some restaurants, like Casale’s Halfway Club in Sparks, simply thrive on tradition.

Family owned and operated since 1937, Casale’s is the oldest restaurant in not just Northern Nevada, but the entire Silver State. The throwback Italian joint — small menu, checkered tablecloth, family vibe — hasn’t changed much throughout its 80-plus years in the restaurant industry, said Tony Casale, manager and third generation owner.

“I mean, our newest item on the menu is 40 years old,” said Casale, laughing. “We’re just woven into the fiber of the community.”

Casale said they don’t even advertise; instead, the rely on the oldest form of marketing: word of mouth. And over eight decades, Casale’s has fed many mouths.

“At any given time we’ll have 20-year-olds to 80-year-olds,” Casale said. “It’s generational; it’s a time capsule. A good meal brings everyone together.”

And those customers have to pay for their meals with a cash or check. That’s right, Casale’s Halfway Club isn’t set up to take credit or debit cards. The Italian eatery is only two years removed from putting in an ATM, Tony Casale said.

“That a place could survive on cash only, it just seems unimaginable,” Casale said. “They just make the accommodation because they want the feel; they want to feel like they’re in their grandmother’s kitchen.”


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