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.
Plant-based and plant-forward meals continue to be on trend this year, with more people turning to these meals for help with their health and fitness goals. You can help by boosting the vegetable quotient in your menu – and not just in your salads. Consider transforming some of the comfort foods on your menu into more plant-forward, heart-healthy options that don’t sacrifice flavor. Create a stand-in for a Bolognese sauce with a hearty blend of lentils and vegetables, create a superfood stir-fry with extra greens, or add plant power to mac and cheese by incorporating seasonal produce.
Make way for plant-based meat. While the rise of meat-free options is hardly new, these foods have gotten a major boost in momentum lately. According to new research, the plant-based meat market is on track to grow 93 percent between now and 2025 – its most substantial growth to date. Growing consumer interest in protecting both personal health and the environment is driving the trend. Restaurants have plenty to gain from it – even if plant-based meats occupy a small fraction of their menus. For one, prices of plant-based meats are coming down, aligning more closely with the cost of animal proteins. Impossible Foods recently cut wholesale prices on its plant-based burgers and sausages by 15 percent – its second price cut in less than a year, according to CNBC. The plant-based market is also an appealing one for restaurants. According to research from Packaged Facts, consumers of plant-based foods (whether all the time or even semi-regularly) tend to have the resources to pay for more premium foods and a willingness to pay for them. They skew younger (think Millennials and Generation Z) and are open to trying new products. They also tend to value eating fresh, healthy foods themselves and providing them for their children. Restaurants who want to develop this market can build menu offerings and promotions with those traits in mind: A restaurant near a college campus might push the boundaries of its plant-based menu items, offering creative combinations and edgy global flavors, while one serving families might assemble plant-based meal kits or bundles that help parents ensure they are feeding their families healthfully.
Offering plant-based items on your menu isn’t just about having a veggie burger on your sandwich menu or offering to substitute vegetables for animal protein in your pasta dishes. It’s also about finding ways to use plant-based ingredients to make a vegan or vegetarian dish as rich and satisfying as any other entrée on your menu. Think about how you can harness the properties of plants to make soups heartier and sauces creamier. When done well, your guests won’t miss the meat.
If you’re looking to appeal to flexitarians and offer a strong gateway to the plant-based foods on your menu, chicken can serve you well. Not only is it a lean protein that can benefit a person’s muscles, bones, mood and cardiovascular health, but it can also be seasoned and prepared in many of the same ways as the vegetables on your menu, making it easy to create different variations on a single dish.