Millennials want it their way. However, the shift toward fresh, creative and personalized made-to-order foods has become a game-changing development in the fast-casual foodservice segment, according to a report published by Packaged Facts, Rockville, Md.

The report, “Millennial Menus: Culinary Trend Tracking Series,” showcases how the impact goes beyond the limited "white, wheat or rye" custom options of yesteryear.

"The mix-and-match, 'built-it-for-me' trend in fast casual has diversified to all sectors of the restaurant industry, from fast food to fine dining, as well as non-commercial venues. Yet, while most obvious on restaurant menus, this trend is bigger than just foodservice. Among prominent food retailers such as Kroger and Meijer, meal kits are a trending example of how even grocery chains are working the do-it-yourself trend in fresh foods," says David Sprinkle, research director for Packaged Facts.

In the past, when customizable food options at restaurants were available, they were typically limited to do-it-yourself sandwiches, burgers, burritos and pizza. But, Millennials and other diners have inspired restaurateurs to expand into more diverse areas such as salads, new-wave Asian (including fusion noodles, stir-fry and sushi) and boundary-pushing global cuisines.

For example:

  • Trendy salads. The salad niche has proven to be a natural place for experimenting with healthy alternatives to fast food. Concepts tout locally sourced, fresh natural ingredients and a Millennial-style sensibility to alternative eating styles (including vegan and gluten-free), social consciousness, eco design, community-building via social media and other hallmarks of the new generation. Customers choose their own greens, veggies, toppings and dressings, often accompanied by fresh-squeezed juice or a smoothie.
  • Next-gen Asian cuisine. The Chinese, Japanese and Southeast Asian playbook for restaurants is being rewritten by the customization trend. From stir-fry to noodle bars to sushi, it's not entirely about authenticity; it's about new flavors and custom-built meals. As a result, a new wave of Asian fast-casual restaurants are offering customized meals within the context of more sophisticated ingredients and authentic flavors within a framework of pan-Asian culinary tradition. 
  • Expanding global palates. The customization-oriented, fast-casual format is also working for less familiar cuisines, such as Indian and Korean. The premise is that customers can control the experience, even as they're experimenting with new flavors and ingredients.