Conventional wisdom says that hard-to-please Millennials eschew traditional fast food restaurants—think McDonald’s, Burger King, and Wendy’s—for fast casual chains such as Chipotle, Shake Shack, and Panera Bread. Certainly, the growth numbers in these respective restaurant categories support this view: According to Investopedia, U.S. fast food sales grew 6.1% in 2014, compared to 10.5% growth in the fast casual sector.

These numbers beg a question: Is restaurant choice a zero-sum game? Do Millennials choose fast casual at the expense of fast food chains? Or does their behavior tell a different story? And what do their values tell us about their restaurant choices?

For this edition of Marketing Myth-busters, Resonate looked at the dining habits of Millennials—specifically U.S. online adults ages 18-34. Comparing their likelihood of dining at fast food versus fast casual chains, here’s what we found:


While Millennials are more likely than the general population to be heavy frequenters of fast casual chains than they are fast food chains, on a percentage basis they’re more likely to eat at fast food restaurants: 39% eat at fast casual restaurants at least twice a month, while 52% eat at fast food restaurants just as frequently.

So more Millennials eat fast food than eat at fast casual chains. Why? Household income holds one key: the largest income cohort among Millennials is $25,000-$50,000 (29%) per year. Given their need to stretch budgets, Millennials site “As a treat” as their top reason for dining in either category. At a 124 index for fast casual and a 134 index for fast food, Millennials are even slightly more likely to view fast food as a treat over fast casual.

Here are the top brands at which Millennials are most likely to dine two to four times a month:


There’s Chipotle, of course—but of the top six restaurant brands, three of them are fast food chains. In this case, Resonate has busted the myth: Millennials are still consuming fast food equally as often as they’re frequenting fast casual chains.

The key to winning the battle for the Millennial wallet? Understanding their restaurant purchase drivers. Restaurants who lead their marketing messages with an emphasis on their unique menus (137 index), sustainable practices (135), and fun atmosphere (131) will build brand affinity with this cohort. Fast casual chains have enjoyed impressive growth—but the battle for the Millennial stomach is still far from over.