With the amount of money and attention being invested in plant-based foods, it’s easy to get caught up in the wave of excitement. From oat milk to cauliflower crust, plant-based foods have blossomed into a $3.3 billion industry at retail. Meanwhile, foodservice operators are re-examining menus, foraging for solutions, and launching new concepts to capitalize on rising consumer interest in plant-based alternatives. Take, for example, Burger King who announced this year it would run a 59-store test of the Impossible Burger, a soy protein-based burger being embraced by independent chefs and chains alike. By offering a meatless option, Burger King provides current customers more choice, perhaps inspiring them to come in more often, while attracting new consumers who would not otherwise consider the chain.
In determining whether plants have a bigger role to play on menus, it’s important for chefs and operators to consider more than just the bump or buzz that may come from featuring products like the Impossible Burger or other meat “analogs.” An intimate understanding of the consumer — their specific needs, interests and expectations of the restaurant and/or brand — should drive the vision or food philosophy for the overall concept as well as the menu strategy. And if done right, cultivating a plant-forward menu will not require buzzwords like “plant-based, “vegetarian” or “vegan,” but rather resonate with guests on a more lasting and meaningful level that comes across as authentic and not forced.
As one of the primary drivers of consumer interest in plant-based foods, “better health” can manifest itself in as many ways across the menu and across dayparts as there are guests, including allergen free, high protein, low carb and everything in between. At minimum, incorporating plant-forward menu items can help create a positive health halo. And, if guests are actively making food choices based on diet or health, cultivating a plant-forward menu that incorporates an array of vegetables, fruits, grains, legumes and even dairy alternatives enables the flexibility and customization necessary to serve this health-conscious crowd.
Separate from better health, some consumers, particularly those from younger generations, seek out and extend loyalty to plant-forward restaurants whose values align with theirs around issues like sustainability and animal welfare. In some instances, animal protein still has a home on the menu, but serves more as an ingredient and comes from more sustainable, animal-friendly sources. In any case, a plant-forward menu can facilitate transparency and create an opportunity for greater engagement with guests by sharing the restaurant’s food philosophy, including the sources and stories behind its products and menu.
In the end, the most critical ingredient to a successful plant-forward menu that appeals to all guests is TASTE. Whether plants are the primary focus or have a supporting role on the menu, they enable chefs to express their creativity and innovate with new flavor combinations that appeal to consumer’s desire for culinary adventure. While it may take some convincing to bring some guests along, leveraging the abundance of unique and flavorful plants available today can create an exciting and compelling point of differentiation to keep current and new guests coming back for more.
Blog written by Kathy Takemura, Partner, Tournant Inc