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Millennials focus ever more on food

Jay Johnson loves food, especially fresh ingredients and locally sourced charcuterie plates. The Minneapolis resident dines out at least twice a week, keeping close tabs on the restaurant scene so he can be among the first through the doors of the hottest new eateries.

While his parents’ generation grew up with Kraft macaroni and cheese, T.G.I. Friday’s and the occasional night out at that special restaurant, Johnson and his peers were weaned on “Iron Chef,” a diverse array of ethnic restaurants and the books of food philosophers such as Michael Pollan and Anthony Bourdain.

The results: They eat out – a lot. Haute has become hip.

A recent survey by the research firm Technomic found that 42 percent of millennials go out at least once a month to a fine-dining restaurant, which is twice the rate for baby boomers. In fact, for many people born between 1980 and 2000, restaurants have replaced bars as their socializing hubs, said veteran food observer Andrew Zimmern.

“These young adults put food at the top of the list on how they spend their dollars,” said Zimmern, host of the Travel Channel’s “Bizarre Foods.” “They know the difference between garganelli and strozzapreti. Across the board, they are three times the gastronauts their parents are.”

Their appetites are changing the culinary landscape – driving the proliferation of restaurants, food trucks and farmers markets and elevating the status of local chefs. Their fascination with food might be one of the defining characteristics of this eat-and-tweet generation.

“More and more young people are taking a proactive approach, dining out, writing blogs, supporting food trucks, supporting farmers markets, working in restaurants or just paying attention to where and how they eat,” said Charlie Broder, 25, a manager of Broder’s Pasta Bar in Minneapolis. “I believe the 20- and 30-somethings have made dining out part of an unseen social status. Where you eat has become the new cool.”

That’s certainly the case for marketing professional Jenna Bennett. When she moved to the Twin Cities three years ago, she discovered “a foodie community unlike anything I’d ever seen,” including in Chicago. Now Bennett, 30, chronicles her every dining experience on Instagram, Foursquare and Twitter, where she has more than 4,300 followers.

But for these young urbanites, it’s not just about eating.

“It’s a big social thing,” said Johnson, 30. “But we’re also taking care of ourselves through food. It’s not low-cal, necessarily, but eating real food. That’s what we do.”

As little as a decade ago, you could count the number of fine-dining destinations in Minneapolis on one hand. But the city has seen a 58 percent rise in fine-dining restaurants (those that sell wine) in 10 years.

In 2007, the only local food trucks sold Popsicles and drove around blaring “Pop Goes the Weasel.” Last year, more than 50 food trucks lined Twin Cities streets, serving everything from kafta meatball sandwiches to cow’s-head tacos.

Stores focusing solely on cheese, olive oils and vinegars, or meat from local sustainable farms, are popping up. Kristin Tombers, owner of Clancey’s Meats & Fish in Minneapolis, said that “easily half” of her clientele is 35 and under. And they’re passionate – rather than casual – customers.

“One young woman was just in here asking for a pig tongue,” Tombers said. “We also have a guy who walks out of here with tears in his eyes because he can get a bag of rabbit livers, kidneys and hearts.”

Going to restaurants and buying organic, exotic ingredients to cook at home costs money, of course.

Johnson said he spends at least 20 percent of his income on food. But he maintains that he and his food-centric peers are spending now to save later.

“People in my generation have read (Pollan’s) ‘In Defense of Food’ and seen ‘Super Size Me,’ “ he said. “They have come to realize that if we spend a little more on what we put into our bodies, we’re better off than if we try to fix it later.”