Tap into the freedom of plant-based dishes
From the plant-based chicken nuggets increasingly available at quick-service brands up to the sushi-grade vegan calamari coming to market, new plant-based foods are flooding restaurant menus. According to the Rethinking Meatless report by taste and nutrition company Kerry, plant-based menu items have skyrocketed 800 percent over four years. As the options have gotten tastier and gone mainstream, even carnivores are enjoying them: A 2021 survey from the market research firm Piplsay found that of 30,700 people polled, 71 percent said they had heard of plant-based meat substitutes at quick-service restaurants. Of those, 54 percent had tried the alternatives – 72 percent of whom identified as meat eaters. Plant-based options on restaurant menus are likely to expand even further. The Impossible company alone launched a record number of products in late 2021, including plant-based sausage, chicken nuggets, pork and meatballs. But even if you don’t offer these particular items on your menu, consumers’ desire for plant-based food takes the pressure off of restaurant brands to offer a particular animal protein – and that’s a great thing when inflation is high and supplies are uncertain. At a time when a restaurant customer happily orders an Impossible burger or one made from quinoa or black beans or lentils or vegetables, there is room for chefs to innovate – and to make creative substitutions based on what ingredients happen to be available and affordable at a given time.
Chances are you’re offering more plant-based options on your menu nowadays – whether due to supply challenges, escalating food costs, evolving guest preferences or some combination of the above. At a time when uncertainties abound, it’s helpful to be able to successfully steer guests toward the items you prefer to sell – and some new research has shown how simple changes to menu language can lead guests to choose plant-based dishes more frequently. World Resources Institute researched the reaction of 6,000 people in the U.S. to 10 menu descriptions. A number of them generated some dramatic results. For example, when guests read the text, “Each of us can make a positive difference for the planet. Swapping just one meat dish for a plant-based one saves greenhouse gas emissions that are equivalent to the energy used to charge your phone for two years. Your small change can make a big difference,” they chose a vegetarian dish 25 percent of the time. That’s more than double the rate of guests who were shown no message at all. Another phrase, “Ninety percent of Americans are making the change to eat less meat. Join this growing movement and choose plant-based dishes that have less impact on the climate and are kinder to the planet,” resulted in 22 percent of guests opting for a plant-based dish, again far higher than those shown no messaging. Related messages about the taste of the food and the need to protect the planet for future generations also led to more guests selecting vegetarian meals. How do you explain plant-based options on your menu? If you currently stick to plain labels – vegetarian lasagna, veggie burger, etc. – you may not be driving as much traffic to those items as you potentially could.
Not so long ago, plant-based proteins were considered solid supporting players – available as options for vegetarian guests tagging along to restaurants with omnivores but not necessarily tasty enough to be promoted as entrées worth seeking out in their own right. That has changed in a big way. Plant-based proteins have improved in taste and variety, consumers have become more aware of beef’s significant carbon footprint, and operators have struggled to source animal proteins. This has all resulted in plant-based proteins growing in demand for consumers and restaurant operators alike. This year, some restaurant brands aren’t only sourcing plant-based proteins but are also innovating their own varieties and testing them with guests. Chipotle, in particular, recently developed its own vegan chorizo made with peas, chipotle peppers, tomato paste, crushed garlic, Spanish smoked paprika and extra-virgin olive oil. Sean Cash, an economist with the Friedman School of Nutrition Science at Tufts University, told the Washington Post that more restaurant operators are “seeing it as a necessity” to offer plant-based proteins and that these options may help give restaurants a critical bit of extra pull with potential guests. This year, take a closer look at plant-based proteins worthy of occupying the center of the plate – whether as sourced replacements for chicken, beef, pork or seafood, or as combinations you develop in-house. Are there opportunities for you to enhance your selection and offer these proteins as customizable additions or substitutions on standard menu items?
The plant-based meat market continues its climb. According to Allied Research, the global meat substitute market was valued at $4.1 billion in 2017 and is expected to surge to over $8 billion by 2026. Plant-based protein options have several factors converging in their favor, including relative environmental sustainability, growing consumer acceptance and a smoother supply chain. A recent Forbes report said that while new entrants to the plant-based meat market are facing regulatory hurdles concerning food safety and traceability, their supply chain tends to be shorter, more compact, and less water- and labor-intensive than the traditional meat supply chain – all important positives right now. New releases to the plant-based meat market are getting a boost in the media as a result: Impossible Foods just launched plant-based chicken nuggets in many popular U.S. restaurants, Nestle has expanded into vegan eggs and shrimp, and brands including McDonald’s have announced that taking a plant-based approach is a key part of its plan to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. You can expect plant-based meat options to occupy a larger portion of restaurant menus going forward – if not because guests are demanding them, then because the restaurant industry is requiring them in order to compete. #plantbased
U.S. consumers are embracing plant-based foods – both in restaurants and at home. According to a Gallup study, 41 percent of people in the U.S. have tried plant-based meats — and of those people, 60 percent said they were likely to continue eating them. Further, Technomic found that 59 percent of consumers say they eat meatless meals at least once a week, and 33 percent are actively trying to reduce their meat consumption. New releases of a plant-based meal kit for home preparation by Nestle’s Freshly brand, as well as a chicken substitute for restaurants by Impossible Foods, have underlined how plant-based foods are embedding themselves in the mainstream food industry. Incorporating more plant-based meals on your menu isn’t about denying your loyal carnivores their burger or being a slave to trends. Rather, it’s a means for you to stretch your inventory and budget at a time when supplies are short and operators must do much more with less. You can approach this in different ways depending on your clientele. If you serve devoted carnivores, consider offering slightly smaller cuts of meat and filling a larger portion of the plate with vegetables, legumes and grains. This Restaurant Hospitality report also suggests playing up vegetables’ interesting colors and shapes with creative presentations, enticing customers with lesser-known plant-based ingredients and creating interest around them, and to share the benefits of these foods by telling stories about how versatile they are and how they can support good nutrition.
When brands as ubiquitous as McDonald’s and Taco Bell have plant-based menu offerings, you know alternative proteins have come a long way. Research from The Good Food Institute and the Plant-Based Foods Association found that U.S. retail sales of plant-based foods increased by double digits in 2019, growing 11 percent. More recently, a study from Michigan State University found that 35 percent of Americans had tried plant-based meat in the past year and 90 percent said they would do so again. In restaurants, there is still a lot of room for growth among alternative proteins – and far beyond the burger menu. How open are your guests to plant-based seafood, cultivated meat or even 3D printed meat? More options in these categories are entering the market internationally, and in the coming months and years, industry analysts expect pricing parity for these proteins when compared with the conventional versions. The Good Food Institute predicts that this year could usher in a diversity of new alternative protein offerings, including plant-based seafood, meat snacks, bacon and pork products, turkey and dairy, as well as the further development of protein sources including fungi, pulses, oats and rice. There will also be more alt-protein offerings with global flavors and comfort-food applications. If you’re looking for insights into how consumers may view such alternatives, look to businesses that are already collecting feedback. Case in point: Late last year, the alt-meat company SuperMeat opened an entire restaurant in Israel called The Chicken for the purpose of testing cell-based chicken products with consumers. (For now, anyway, customers provide their feedback about the food in lieu of payment.)
Plant-based foods continue to make their mark on both the restaurant menu and the corporate boardroom. This has been especially evident at the quick-service and fast-casual restaurant brands that have best weathered the challenges of the pandemic – and will likely have an amplified presence in the industry as we emerge from it. Burger King recently pledged that half of its menu would be plant-based within nine years, a number of national brands have begun offering new plant-based breakfast sandwiches, and at brands including Chipotle, executive compensation is now tied to success in achieving companywide environmental sustainability goals, among other social responsibility measures. In the months and years ahead, customers will come to expect more plant-forward menu options and environment-forward company policies. Is your operation on course to provide those things? If there is room for improvement, start by fine-tuning your environmental policy so it includes specific, measurable and achievable environmental goals related to your team, customers, suppliers and the public overall. It should include details about how you monitor and reduce waste and emissions related to your food supply, how you plan to comply with environmental legislation and train staff to support it, and how you will manage, improve and hold people accountable for your ongoing environmental performance. Bringing more plant-forward options onto the menu naturally feeds into these goals. Look beyond salads and identify creative ways to enhance your entrée menu with filling plant-based or plant-forward burgers, pasta dishes and sandwiches you can offer right alongside your meatier options.
Go with the grain
As consumers take more steps to protect their health, they’re likely incorporating more whole grains into their diets. The protein, fiber, B vitamins and other nutrients in whole grains can promote weight loss and reduce the risk of diseases. Whole grains also make for a more satisfying dish. In your menu options, skew towards including whole grain ingredients such as brown rice, bulgur and whole grain pasta in your salads, soups and entrées – or at least offering them as a substitute for refined starches.
For food lovers, warming weather means outdoor food festivals, street fairs and more opportunities to consume a wide variety of street food from around the world. Even if these occasions are put on hold yet again this year, you can still offer comforting, craveable, street food-inspired options to go. From enchiladas to samosas, and pierogis to paella, there are hundreds of possibilities that can showcase your creativity – and can be made vegetarian and vegan too.
You know plant-based foods are here to stay when a French, vegan restaurant earns a Michelin star. That’s just what happened in January when the restaurant ONA received the accolade, along with a green star recognizing its ethical practices. The restaurant joins increasing numbers of vegetarian and vegan restaurants around the world that have earned Michelin stars, but having such a restaurant rise to the top in meat-loving France demonstrates that even committed carnivores may find something to love in plant-based food. For restaurant guests and owners alike, there are benefits to offering these choices: Consumers are happily incorporating more plant-based foods into their diets as their available options become tastier, more plentiful and make them feel more ethical. On the flip side, restaurants can tap into new sources of positive publicity by offering inventive vegetarian and vegan options. They may find new potential funding sources too. (Chef Claire Vallée, who opened ONA in 2016, relied on crowdfunding and loans from a bank specializing in ethical funding to get her restaurant off the ground.) If you’re looking to test your customers’ tastes for plant-based foods, promote a meat-free Monday as a low-commitment way to encourage flexitarians to try cutting back on meat. While you’re at it, highlight higher-protein options that are more likely to satisfy a skeptic, as well as other consumer-friendly benefits to plant-based diets, like a lower BMI and improved cardiovascular health.