In the push to grow same-store sales, franchisees across the Dunkin’ Donuts footprint are focusing on Generation Y—the generation known as millennials. There are more than 80 million of these 18-33 year olds with over a trillion dollars in buying power and a huge influence on older generations like the Baby Boomers. According to the Pew Research Center, Generation Y is forging a distinctive path into adulthood unlike any generation before them. They are digital natives, racially diverse and socially networked.

A force to be reckoned with, people born between 1981 and 1996 are also showing they know what they want when it comes to food and restaurants. “There’s no question that this is an important demographic that we are working to attract,” says Rick Albert, a Dunkin’ Donuts franchisee with ten stores in New Hampshire and Pennsylvania.

Why Dunkin’ appeals to millennials

In the McDonald’s system, millennials are also highly prized, but studies show the Golden Arches lag behind Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks for coffee and snacks. The study, by the marketing company ClickZ, finds the two coffee giants are especially popular among 20-and 30-somethings. One reason millennials like Dunkin’ Donuts, according to the research, is Dunkin’s robust digital presence. Those in the know say it’s entertaining and offers relevant rewards while creating a social environment where millennials can do what they love best: Share.

Dunkin’s social media platform – and the “Share Your Dunkin’ Story” initiative – inspires millennials to post videos, tweet, and tout the praises of new products like Dunkin’ Dark Roast – or old favorites – on social media sites like Twitter, Vine and Instagram.

Franchisees also point to the experience of the shop – and Dunkin’s new interior concepts – as a way to appeal to millennials. “Starbucks has the steam and the baristas,” Florida franchisee Charles Cutler remarked during a panel discussion at the DDIFO National Conference to make the point that the theater makes the Starbucks experience appealing to millennials.

Another Florida franchisee, Andy Patel, who operates nine stores throughout Jacksonville and Orange Park, says the look and feel of the “Fresh Brewed” concepts make these consumers feel at home.

“We are seeing that Wi-Fi access, digital screens, and menu boards are needed to cater to this growing group,” says Patel. His Bartram Park Boulevard location in Jacksonville, Fla. draws a suburban crowd of younger consumers that are inclined to sit and linger in the shop’s 35 seats, enjoying their drinks, snacks and screens all day. Patel has noticed Gen Y customers dropping by for breakfast, then returning for a working lunch or a late-afternoon or evening snack.

That trend is also in step with the research. A generational consumer trends report produced by Technomic, a Chicago consulting firm, finds millennials seek out restaurants that allow them to eat at all different times of day and night as they look for convenient, quick meals. The industry journal Restaurant Development and Design, writes, “You see millennials eating more throughout the day as opposed to a traditional breakfast, lunch and dinner.”

Millennials themselves write about the importance of places like Dunkin’ Donuts in their daily lives. Emily Wilson, a twenty-something who blogs on the site, Trending Millennial, says coffee shops are the new cubicle for millennials. Her generation, she says, has a unique relationship with coffee not just because it’s something over which one can linger while connecting with friends online, but also because millennials are socially conscious shoppers who are likely to follow a product’s sourcing, Coffee, because its grown in the jungles and rainforests, can be a cultural touch point that allows its consumers to feel connected to farmers and their agrarian lifestyle.

Neal Faulkner, who operates a network of 19 Dunkin’ Donuts shops in the suburbs west of Boston, says millennial customers are aware of Dunkin Brands’ participation in the Rainforest Alliance and that Dunkin’ Espresso beans carry the Fair Trade Certified™ label.

And, he is aware of what taste profiles these consumers like. Faulkner says Dunkin’s new iced green tea and other flavored beverages are popular with the younger crowd. They also like to customize their coffee with new French Vanilla and Hazelnut Swirls to create a sweeter, more indulgent beverage. “Being able to customize the drink is also important to millennials,” he has learned.

This is also borne out in the research. According to a new study from Datassentials, a Chicago foodservice research firm, those on the younger side of the millennial generation favor sweeter, specialty coffee drinks early on, but eventually graduate to traditional hot brewed coffees over time.

“We need to provide products that millennials will want to have, as well as those that they will transition to as they mature,” Faulkner says. “It’s important to build customer loyalty and provide flavors they appreciate now as well as those they will enjoy later.”

Tech appeal

For digital contact, the Dunkin’ Mobile App appears well received among the millennial crowd. They use it to follow company news, get coupons and pay for their coffee and snacks.

“I’ve seen steady growth among those using the app to pay at the register,” says Faulkner, who held an employee contest to encourage his staffers to talk to customers about the app. The employee who facilitated the most app downloads won an iTunes card or passes to a local movie theater.

Two things all retailers have learned about dealing with America’s fastest growing generation: 1) they despise bad food and slow service; 2) if they are disappointed by their restaurant experience, they’re sure to complain about it on social media.

For franchisees, that means paying closer attention to quality control and customer wait times—as well as social media sites like Yelp, which are popular repositories for comments about local eating and drinking establishments.

Jacksonville’s Andy Patel says it’s a priority to make sure orders are placed smoothly. He also Googles his stores to see what customers are saying online. He was encouraged by this Yelp review from a person named Angela D., “Great stop for breakfast. So far wonderful customer service. They are the quickest Dunkin' I have ever been to!!”

There is no getting around the millennials. Estimates are they will compose 75 percent of the workforce by 2025 and also make up the majority of hourly workers for quick service and fast casual restaurants.

Dunkin’ Donuts franchise owners in every region are taking note of the likes and dislikes of their Gen Y customers. Many are encouraged by what they are finding, as exemplified by this Yelp reviewer.

“I feel like an iced coffee or latte can solve almost any issue!!!”

That’s a millennial for you.