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.
Your to-go packaging says a lot about you: Before a customer even sets foot in your restaurant, your packaging immediately communicates messages about not only your brand identity but also about how much you value customer safety, the environment and the quality of your off-premise food. Now that we’re emerging from the pandemic, more operators are picking up where they left off with innovating the packaging and cutlery they include with their off-premise meals. Shake Shack, for one, recently announced it is testing sustainable cutlery and straws from AirCarbon, which includes no synthetic plastics or glues in its products, doesn’t need food crops in its production process, and produces items that are home-compostable, soil-degradable and ocean-friendly. Edible packaging is on the rise too, with materials like mushrooms being fashioned into bowls and seaweed being tested as a plastic-like but biodegradable alternative to traditional plastic cutlery. If you’re currently evaluating the carbon footprint of your menu, consider the entire carbon footprint of the meals you provide (including the containers surrounding them). Of the 78 million tons of plastic packaging produced around the world each year, only 14 percent is recycled, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Off-premise dining isn’t showing signs of slowing down, and in the months and years ahead, the way you present your food for consumption off-site is likely to play an increasingly important role in how customers perceive your business.
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.
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.
Consumers are thinking more about not only their health but the health of the planet right now. Incorporating more plant-based meals into your menu and promoting their environmental, health and ethical benefits can help you support the changes they are making to their diets. A recent report from Meticulous Research estimates that the plant-based market will grow nearly 12 percent annually in the next seven years. Nestlé also reported that 87 percent of Americans are incorporating plant-based protein into their diets. As consumers look to eat more plant-based dishes, restaurants are in an ideal position to make those plants more craveable. Consider updating traditional dishes with plant-based alternatives and changing up presentations to add interest to your menu.