CHICAGO — Consumers over the age of 55 have increased their traffic at food service during the past five years while younger generations have decreased their food service patronage, according to The NPD Group.

In the past, older consumers visited restaurants less frequently than younger consumers and received less marketing as a result. But more recently, boomers and older have increased their share of restaurant traffic by six percentage points since 2008, while millennials have decreased their share of traffic by 6 percentage points.

“A lot of restaurant marketing dollars are aimed at millennials, but market share capture remains the growth path for restaurant operators just as it has been for the past five years,” said Bonnie Riggs, NPD restaurant industry analyst. “Gaining market share among population segments increasing in both number and their use of restaurants, like boomers, eases the struggle. Operators just need to keep in mind that reaching older customers requires recognizing what it is they want from their restaurant experience.”

The NPD Group said much of what older customers desire is similar to what younger customers want but with a few differences. Older consumers want flexible meal options, such as smaller plates, available all day at affordable prices. Meal options must appeal to changing dietary requirements and a fixed income. They also want a welcoming environment and polite and friendly service. Overall, food, quality and value are essential to satisfying these consumers, and a focus on service, menu and atmosphere will differentiate restaurants from competitors in the minds of older consumers, the NPD Group said.

Overall, restaurant traffic as a whole has improved slightly since the recession, with traffic up 1% for the year ended September 2012. However, levels are still below those in 2008. Morning visits have recovered to pre-recession levels, up 2% for the year ended September 2012, due to increased visits by those over 55. These consumers also are helping recover lost supper visits.