According to latest Census Bureau data, the U.S. senior population is increasing faster than that of young people. Restaurants can capitalize on this growing demographic trend.
Joe Powers, owner of 175-seat Canadian Honker Restaurant in Rochester, Minnesota, says 30 to 40 percent of his customers are seniors. They tell him quality, homemade entrees, and value keep them coming back. The camaraderie doesn't hurt either.
In its 26th year, Canadian Honker Restaurant’s senior regulars have come to know the staff.
"They ask for their favorite server or for their seat," Powers says. "We’re happy to accommodate them."
The senior menu offers smaller, less expensive portions. "Seniors also like to share dinners," he says. "And we’re happy to plate it up that way in the kitchen. It’s extra steps but it’s been worth it."
Much of Canadian Honker Restaurant’s community outreach service includes seniors’ concerns, which pays off in customer loyalty.
An annual Veterans Day breakfast serves as many as 800 guests. "We do a lot with World War II vets," Powers says, adding that seniors are comfortable "going to a place that really cares about their generation."
Gail Hettinger, who co-owns family-run Schnitzelbank Restaurant in Jasper, Indiana, says seniors are important to the 50-year-old restaurant’s success.
Many in Jasper hail from German descent. Schnitzelbank celebrates that heritage in "olde" world décor, cuisine, and hospitality.
The early evening menu features smaller, lower-priced portions served during the less crowded hours when seniors often dine. Staff is trained to offer alternatives for customers with diabetic or other dietary concerns.
"We’ll drain the slaw to cut down on sugar and calories," Hettinger explains. "Or do something grilled instead of fried."
Cognizant of possible mobility issues, she tries to make things convenient, seating seniors near the salad bar, for instance.
Research by Richard Ghiselli, PhD, head of Purdue University’s department of hospitality and tourism management, reveals that these eateries are on the right track.
Some of what seniors value is no different than patrons of any age. For instance, Ghiselli reports, cleanliness is a big factor. Also important are a quiet atmosphere. "And seniors want more space between tables."
At Henry’s in Delray Beach, Florida, restaurateur Burt Rapoport estimates his senior customer base at around ninety percent. "We’ve arranged tables so a wheelchair can get by without interfering with other guests," he says. "Another concern we hear is that older people don’t like a lot of salt in their food. So at that location, we make our food a bit on the blander side."
Rapoport fosters an "always try to say yes" attitude among staff, which helps solve dietary concerns or special requests. "Sometimes we wonder why we even have menus," he says.
"Older people are very specific about what they want. Virtually every single customer modifies the menu choices. And we try to accommodate them. You have to think of these people like they’re your parents or grandparents. How would you treat them?"
At The Canadian Honker, Powers recalls those who grew up during The Great Depression. "They’ve been called the greatest generation, and they’re some of my best and most pleasant customers."
Restaurants that cater to this growing Golden Years population segment often find their own golden market.
By Sheri McGregor