As current economic conditions make it critical for restaurants to do as much as possible with fewer resources, it can feel like an impossible task to have to innovate. Yet, innovation is a critical reason consumers eat at restaurants: According to Technomic research, consumers order new or unique items from restaurants 25 percent of the time. At a session of the recent National Restaurant Association Show, experts weighed in on how to maximize menu innovation efforts when operators are feeling stretched thin. It comes down to five P’s: pivots, preparation, proteins (and plants), personalization and predictions. Combining existing ingredients in new ways is an easy pivot that can refresh a menu. Your preparation of a dish can also transform it: consider charring or pickling vegetables to inject new flavor into your menu, or freezing a cocktail to give it a slushy texture. As animal proteins have become difficult to source, chefs have had to get creative with new cuts of meat – and also with plant proteins at the center of the plate. Now is an ideal time to experiment with more plant-forward entrées. When a consumer knows they can order something just the way they like it, you can win their loyalty, so consider how you can make your menu feel more personalized by offering a choice of condiments, sides and/or grains. Finally, weave in some of the year’s trend predictions. You can be on-trend but not trendy by taking an ingredient on the rise in menus – even something as simple as a seasoned salt or a spice – and adding it to your food and beverage menu in new ways.
According to a new study by the consulting firm Kearney, 80 percent of consumers indicate they have some awareness of the impact their food choices have on climate and the environment – a trend the report calls “climavorism.” Do you know how your guests feel about the proteins on your menu – and could you offer customizable options that allow them to make climate-conscious decisions about what they order? More restaurant brands across the country are making this possible. The Kearney research dovetails with a vast expansion of plant-based proteins appearing on menus nationwide, from the plant-based panko chicken being offered as an add-on ingredient to any dish at Noodles & Co. to the black bean patty and egg white breakfast sandwich on offer at Dunkin’. As you consider new menu options, how might you expand the presence of plant-based proteins – both those that are intended as meat substitutes and other dishes that are naturally plant-based? Can you make them shine not simply as understudies to meat but as appealing options in their own right?
Consumers are eager to eat alternative proteins. The research firm NPD group found that in April 2021, shipments of alternative protein products from food service distributors to commercial restaurants had climbed by 60 percent year-over-year. Further, a report released in January from The Good Food Institute predicted there would be continued diversification of alternative protein sources in the months ahead. As consumers and restaurants seek out more sustainable sources of nutrients, how far are you stretching the boundaries of what protein looks like on your menu? In addition to substitutes for animal protein, think about naturally plant-based sources including beans, seeds, grains and fortified pastas.
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.
You’re likely serving more flexitarians these days – or people who simply want to increase their intake of vegetables in interesting, satisfying ways. Plant-forward pasta dishes are a great alternative for these guests because they can pack a dish full of nutrients without feeling restrictive. They’re also easy to adapt and customize with whatever vegetables happen to be available and in season (or with chicken, seafood or sausage for those who want a little meat).
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.
Is there a rush on plant-based protein at your restaurant? If so, you’re not alone: According to new research from NPD Group, shipments of plant-based protein from foodservice distributors to restaurants were up 60 percent in April compared to the same month last year (and up by double-digit margins over 2019 as well). That growth persisted across alt-protein categories including plant-based beef, chicken, fish and conventional plant-based options like grains, nuts, vegetables, tofu and tempeh. And the rise of plant-based protein may be just getting started. Plant-based restaurants are popping up, even on the high end – like Eleven Madison Park in New York. Meanwhile, universities are developing programs based on the study of cellular agriculture and companies are investing in fermentation technology that could rapidly expand plant-based and even animal-plant hybrid proteins in the years ahead, the Spoon reports. As more players enter the market, expect increasing differentiation in plant-based proteins, such as options with global seasonings, premium options, and even plant-based proteins made in-house at restaurants, Technomic predicts. In your restaurant, it’s a good time to test your guests’ openness to alt-protein options and to assess how incorporating more of these items could support your operation through extending the shelf life of your ingredients, minimizing waste and shrinking your carbon footprint.