Research finds a few differences between gay/lesbian/bisexual restaurant consumers and straight consumers in the United States.
Depending on the source, somewhere between 3% and 8% of the U.S. population self-identify as members of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered) community. Similarly, in the United Kingdom, LGBT population estimates vary widely, from the Office for National Statistics’ 1.5% up to 6% or 7%.
A 2011 study by the Williams Institute, a division of the University of California at Los Angeles School of Law whose mission is to “advance sexual orientation and gender identity law and public policy through rigorous, independent research and scholarship,” found that nearly 4% of the U.S. population is openly LGBT, with 3.5% identifying as gay, lesbian or bisexual, and 0.3% identifying as transgender.
Using those percentages and the most recent U.S. Census Bureau population figures, that translates to roughly 10 million LGBT consumers in the United States, making them worth studying as a consumer group.
Although in many ways LGBT consumers’ behavior, attitudes and preferences are not all that different from those of the general population, there are some areas in which pronounced differences are visible.
The Strength of Youth
Technomic surveyed 500 consumers, half of whom self-identify as gay/lesbian or bisexual. The LGBT panel skews significantly younger than the straight panel: 25% of straight panelists are 55 or older while only 9% of gay/lesbian respondents and 2% of bisexual respondents are in that age group; and 20% of straight panelists are 45-54 while 16% of gay/lesbian respondents and 5% of bisexual respondents are 45-54. The difference may be due to younger generations being more comfortable with discussing their sexual orientation. Older LGBT consumers, while perhaps not “in the closet,” may be less willing to talk about orientation and chose not to participate.
So we have to keep in mind when examining demographics such as relationship status and employment, and even behavioral tendencies such as use of drive-thrus and consumption of adult beverages, that these LGBT consumers skew younger and thus are less likely to have settled down.
For example, 54% of gay/lesbian respondents and 37% of bisexual respondents are single, compared to just 22% of straight consumers. Because the LGBT pool is younger, it makes sense that a lower percentage of them report being married or in a committed relationship.
Nearly one out of three gay/lesbian consumers live alone, compared to 11% of bisexual respondents and 12% of straight respondents. LGBT consumers are far more likely to live with other adult family members, such as parents or grandparents, than straight consumers are. A sizeable percentage of LGBT panelists are students (5% are part-time students and 16% are full-time students); many of those who live with other adult family members are likely college-age students living at home.
Technomic asked consumers to describe their employment status to gain insight into their discretionary spending ability. A large percentage of all consumers (43%) are working full-time, with little difference between straight and LGBT respondents. Straight consumers are slightly less likely than LGBT consumers to work part-time: 15% vs. 18%.
Twelve percent of all respondents are full-time students and 3% are part-time students. LGBT consumers are more than twice as likely to report being students, which aligns with the younger age skew of LGBT panelists.
Unemployment percentages were slightly higher for LGBT consumers than for straight consumers. Again, the LGBT panelists skew younger, and unemployment rates among Millennial workers are higher than the national average.
Those in the LGBT panel make breakfast, lunch, dinner and snack purchases at slightly higher rates than straight consumers. LGBT respondents report dining out an average of 2.7 times for lunch and 2.6 times for dinner in a typical week. The mean figures are slightly lower for the straight population (2.4 and 2.2, respectively).
A look at the use of different types of restaurants finds that consumers’ patronage of fast-food chains does not vary much by sexual orientation. A majority of all consumers (54% of LGBT and 56% of straight respondents) visit quick serves at least once a week. Meanwhile, the percentage of consumers who say they patronize QSRs once every two to three weeks is 26% for the LGBT set and 25% for the straight set.
The LGBT community patronizes fast-casual chains such as Panera Bread and Chipotle Mexican Grill less frequently than the straight population: 43% of LGBT respondents order from fast-casual chains at least once every few weeks, vs. 49% of straight respondents. Twenty-one percent of straight consumers, vs. 18% of LGBT consumers, visit FCRs once a week or more often.
Consumers’ patronage of casual-dining chain restaurants also varies by sexual orientation. A slightly higher percentage of LGBT consumers visit CDR chains once a week or more: 15% vs. 11% of straight consumers. But at the same time, the percentage of consumers who say they visit CDRs less than once a month or never is higher for LGBT respondents.
LGBT panelists revealed much higher frequency rates of local bars and taverns than did straight panelists. Fourteen percent of LGBT panelists, compared to 7% of straight panelists, say they visit neighborhood bars and taverns once a week or more often. Further, nearly one in four LGBT panelists (24%) say they visit these types of establishments once every couple of weeks; just 18% of straight panelists said the same.
Technomic asked panelists about an array of restaurant attributes related to service, atmosphere, value, convenience and décor to gauge how these characteristics impact their limited-service and full-service restaurant selections. For many of the attributes, the percentages are very similar for LGBT and straight consumers. However, for some attributes, significant differences exist.
In rating the importance of attributes at limited-service restaurants, the biggest difference has to do with social responsibility. Sixty-three percent of LGBT panelists—compared to 44% of straight panelists—say that it is important to them that restaurants they patronize are socially responsible. Operators looking to attract LGBT consumers might publicize the aspects of their operating model that are tied to social responsibility, including charitable efforts, local sourcing and sustainability.
Another major skew has to do with adult beverages. Three out of 10 LGBT respondents say that the serving of adult beverages at limited-service restaurants is very important to them; just 19% of straight respondents say the same.
When comparing the attributes that matter most at full-service restaurants to LGBT and straight consumers, the biggest difference has to do with short wait times to be seated. Sixty-five percent of straight panelists rate this as important, compared to 55% of LGBT consumers. Regarding seasonal and limited-time-only menu offerings, just 16% of LGBT consumers, compared to 23% of straight consumers, consider the availability of these items to be important.
LGBT consumers are more inclined than straight consumers to say that delivery service and the serving of adult beverages are important.
Digging deeper finds that 28% of LGBT consumers say they drink all the time or most of the time when they dine out; 24% of straight consumers say the same. Breaking those responses down further reveals that 10% of gay/lesbian panelists and 9% of bisexual panelists said they drink all the time, compared to 7% of straight panelists. More than one in five (21%) bisexual panelists said they drink alcohol most of the time; 17% of gay/lesbian and straight consumers said the same. These figures suggest that adult beverages play a slightly bigger role in the dining-out experience for LGBT consumers than for straight consumers. Again, their youth as a group comes into play.
While many restaurant behaviors, attitudes and preferences of LGBT consumers are the same as they are for straight consumers, it’s worth examining this large demographic group. Even if it is their youth that dictates their increased dining-out frequency and desire for adult beverages, for example, their numbers as well as their social consciousness—and young consumers’ tendency to share their opinions and actively engage others—makes the LGBT community a strong market for smart operators.
Restaurateurs hoping to attract these diners will strive to be inclusive—but also youthful and relevant—through their marketing, service and public relations.
Darren Tristano is Executive Vice President of Technomic Inc., a Chicago-based foodservice consultancy and research firm. Since 1993, he has led the development of Technomic’s Information Services division and directed multiple aspects of the firm’s operations. For more information, visit http://www.technomic.com.