The explosion in consumer demand for plant-based foods was on full display this summer when A&W suffered a “Canada-wide” shortage of Beyond Meat Burgers, just one month after launch. Fans of the new product had to wait until Oct. 1 for the North Vancouver-based chain to finally bring back the popular plant-based patties. What this episode clearly revealed is that when foodservice gets plant-based protein right, the results can be phenomenal. Many restaurants are still sitting out the plant-based revolution, unsure how to position meat alternatives for maximum appeal to mainstream consumers. Below are some ways to cash in on the shift to plant-based protein.
Embrace the health halo
According to market research firm Nielsen, 46 per cent of Canadian consumers associate plant proteins with positive health effects. South of the border, Datassential’s Plant-Based Eating Keynote Report found the number 1 reason (chosen by 49 per cent of respondents) why U.S. consumers are eating more plant-based food is because they perceive it to be healthier. Adding plant protein as a descriptor can cue health in the minds of consumers without indicating diminished flavour.
Since almost all plant-based foods are naturally free of cholesterol and saturated fats, and contain healthier polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fats, putting plant-based meat and dairy on your menu can be a great way to appeal to consumers craving a healthier — but still decadent — choice.
Level up on sustainability
Growing crops, transporting them, feeding them to animals, and then eating only a part of the animal is highly inefficient, using up vast quantities of grains and legumes with a low nutritional ROI. It takes nine calories of food fed to a chicken to get one calorie back out in the form of meat, for example. And chicken is one of the most efficient meats!
United Nations’ scientists state that raising and killing animals for food is “one of the major causes of the world’s most pressing environmental problems, including global warming, land degradation, air and water pollution, and loss of biodiversity.” Additionally, conventional animal agriculture contributes more to climate change than emissions from the entire transportation sector combined — about 15 per cent of all climate change can be attributed to animal agriculture. By 2050, we will have about 10 billion people to feed, and we can’t do it with a system this ecologically inefficient. Plant-based alternatives are far less polluting and far less wasteful.
A 2017 survey from research firm Mattson found that almost one third of U.S. consumers chose the environment as one of their top three reasons for eating more plant-based foods. After health, environmental issues seem to be an important driver in the recent uptick in consumer demand for plant-based alternatives.
Adding products like plant-based burgers gives you a great PR opportunity to highlight your sustainability efforts. For example, swapping just one animal beef patty for a plant-based version like the Impossible Burger saves the emissions equivalent of driving 29 km. Focusing on sustainability is good for the planet, good for your customers, and good for your bottom line.
Lead with flavour
Saying no to animal meat doesn’t mean saying no to flavour. Decades of experience with offering healthy dishes to consumers shows that while consumers are interested in foods that will make them feel good, lose weight, and provide essential nutrients, they will not accept dishes that even hint at sacrifice.
In a study conducted at Stanford and published in JAMA Internal Medicine, four different descriptors were used for the same dish: “Green beans” (basic description), “Light ‘n’ low-carb green beans & shallots” (healthy restrictive description), “Healthy energy-boosting green beans & shallots” (healthy positive description), and “Sweet sizzlin’ green beans and crispy shallots” (indulgent description). The indulgent labelling led to people ordering the green beans 25 per cent more than the basic description, 35 per cent more than the healthy positive description, and 41 per cent more than the healthy restrictive description.
Plant-based menu items shouldn’t be an afterthought or a blend of random vegetables. Rather, they should be positioned as equally indulgent and flavourful as other dishes, with the additional health and environmental benefits of plant protein. The success of products like the Beyond Burger and the Impossible Burger shows that consumers want a familiar, craveable experience that’s healthier, more eco-friendly, and animal-free.
Position plant-based dishes to succeed with flexitarians
Flexitarians — consumers who are reducing their animal protein consumption and increasing their plant protein consumption — comprise a significant percentage of the population. While they don’t want to make the lifestyle choice of veganism or vegetarianism, they are interested in the health and environmental benefits of plants.
Food familiarity is key for flexitarians; they might eat a plant burger one night and an animal-based burger the next. Seventy per cent of Beyond Meat’s consumers are flexitarians, and nine in 10 U.S. consumers who purchase non-dairy milk also purchase dairy milk.
Familiarity is about more than format. Positioning your plant-based dishes on the menu right alongside your regular animal-based dishes is critical. A 2017 study from the London School of Economics found that vegetarian dishes were ordered more than twice as often when listed on the menu with all other entrées compared to being listed in a separate “vegetarian” section.
Menu descriptions matter. Using “plant-based” or “plant protein” labelling instead of “vegetarian” or “vegan” on plant dishes makes it more likely that flexitarians will choose them. “Vegetarian” or “vegan” terminology denotes a lifestyle and identity, indicating these products are only for people who are vegetarian. “Plant-based” descriptors focus customers more on the ingredients and benefits.
Give your existing dishes a plant-based makeover
Blending animal protein with plant protein is very common in Europe, but has made limited appearances in North America. One notable exception is Sonic’s mushroom-blended Slinger burger. But given the success shown in Europe, there’s a lot of opportunity for restaurants and foodservice operators to offer exciting blended dishes. Not to mention the great PR value that could be unlocked by the right blended culinary innovation.
Plant-based doesn’t just have to be at the centre of the plate. Swapping out an ingredient or two in sides or appetizers that are already mostly plant-based can create products that appeal to a larger cohort. With heightened consumer awareness of food allergies and new dietary preferences, offering delicious plant-based foods helps position your establishment as an inclusive place where all can eat.
Use plant-based dishes to reach millennials
Flexitarians aren’t the only mainstream audience interested in plant-based foods; millennials are shifting too. According to research firm Mintel’s 2017 Protein Report, 79 per cent of millennials eat meat alternatives. 30 per cent of millennials eat meat alternatives every day and 50 per cent eat meat alternatives a few times per week. And 37 per cent of millennials plan to buy more meat alternatives next year. Having great plant protein on your menu can help you attract this vital demographic.
Collaborate with suppliers to create awesome plant-based dishes
Canadian companies have historically been leaders in alternative protein innovation. Gardein was founded in 2001 in Vancouver and offers a wide variety of plant-based meat products. Daiya is another Vancouver-based company that makes a variety of plant-based cheeses and dairy products. Canada’s largest meat company, Maple Leaf Foods, has made meat alternatives a cornerstone of their strategy, acquiring plant-based protein companies Lightlife and Field Roast.
Foodservice now has the opportunity to work with suppliers throughout the entire value chain to create new and exciting plant-based dishes. Canada’s protein industries supercluster is driving crop optimization research for ingredients like pea protein and legumes. Incorporating some of these exciting alternative proteins in your dishes can draw consumers and directly support Canadian farmers.
This isn’t a new idea: IKEA North America is looking to make headlines in 2019 by offering a new and innovative plant-based entrée at their 50 U.S. and 14 Canadian cafés. IKEA issued a Request for Proposals to find a plant-based manufacturer partner to develop the entrée, and will work with them to bring it to market. Other restaurants and foodservice operators can take advantage of the consulting offered by plant-based food companies to partner together and create awesome plant-based dishes.
The evidence is hard to ignore: consumers are shifting towards plant-based protein. But the massive rise in consumer interest in plant-based food has not been met with a corresponding growth in plant-based product and recipe innovation from food providers. Restaurants and foodservice operators that do plant-based the right way can cash in on this unsatisfied demand and reap massive rewards.
The Good Food Institute was part of the RC Show 19 panel ‘Sustainability in Your Operations: How Less Can Be More’ – thanks to everyone who attended!