Burger King and KFC have invited diners to feast on new meatless offerings. As you scarf down an Impossible™ WHOPPER® at Burger King or enjoy plant-based chicken nuggets at KFC, you may reflect on how bizarre the situation would have seemed just a decade ago. But the defining trend in the culinary industry heading into the 2020s is unmistakable: more and more customers are opting for plant-based diets that reduce overall meat consumption.
Plant-based cuisines and alternative sources of protein are becoming increasingly popular year over year. But does the widespread adoption of plant-based diets signal a permanent shift in the industry or a passing fad that will leave restaurateurs out to pasture?
Why Consumers Are Shifting to Plant-Based Diets
The cultural shift towards vegan and vegetarian dining didn’t happen overnight. The trend took hold of the culinary industry for three primary reasons:
- Health — The number of vegans in the United States has increased by 600 percent in three years, a dramatic increase fueled by the pursuit of a healthy lifestyle. In 2013, health organization Kaiser Permanente began advising their physicians to recommend plant-based diets to all patients, especially those who have diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, or cardiovascular disease. Our own Chef Doug Schonfeld switched to a plant-based diet at the recommendation of his primary care doctor to take control of his health.
- Sustainability — In a world trying to combat a growing climate crisis, consumers concerned about the environment can make an impact by reducing their meat consumption or eliminating it altogether. According to a 2018 Oxford study, reducing one’s meat and dairy consumption is the most effective way to reduce one’s overall environmental impact. Millennials are leading the charge in sustainable diets, according to Forbes.
- Taste — The emerging shift to plant-based proteins also represents a step forward for the quality and taste profile of alternative meat products. Stated simply: plant-based proteins taste better than they did 10 or 20 years ago. As Modern Restaurant Management notes, “new products like Impossible are a vast improvement when compared to previous options like soy protein, seitan or veggie burgers.” When plant-based products taste just as good as meat, consumers are more likely to incorporate the alternative proteins into their diet.
How Is the Industry Reacting?
To appeal to a broad customer base, restaurants and food service providers are broadening their menus and including more options for vegetarians and vegans. The move is financially sound: 33% of customers are actively reducing their meat consumption, and 59% of consumers eat meatless meals at least once a week. The yearly culinary forecast from the National Restaurant Association concludes that plant-based proteins and eco-friendly packaging are the most prominent and impactful trends in the industry.
Catering to multiple dietary needs is crucial to capturing more business. Smart national brands and mom-and-pop diners alike should expect higher foot traffic with options that cater to vegans, vegetarians, and patrons with gluten sensitivities. There’s a reason why Greek and Thai cuisine have steadily gained traction in the U.S. — menus that expand beyond meat-and-bread offerings are hits with everyone.
Chef Doug says that it’s important to consider the wider context. Brands that specialize in meat-centric offerings aren’t on the chopping block. “The U.S. is the biggest consumer of meats, especially red meat and pork,” he comments. “Chefs are starting to see a need for plant-based items,” he adds, but Schonfeld doesn’t believe that meat will be going away anytime soon. Rather, the popularity of plant-based diets can push restaurants and chefs out of their comfort zone and offer more inclusive menu items that attract a wider variety of consumers.
The Realities of Plant-Based Menus
Creativity plays a vital role in the success of a plant-based menu. Chef Doug concurs that fortune favors the bold when it comes to vegan and vegetarian cooking. “The demand pushes you to constantly experiment,” he says. “Instead of making your pasta dish with spaghetti, what will it taste like if you try it with spaghetti squash noodles?”
For chefs and restaurateurs looking to transition to a plant-based menu or add more vegan and vegetarian options, decide whether to stick with “meat” dishes with alternative proteins or offer dishes that entirely rely on fruits, grains, and vegetables. Define a menu’s goals to craft an on-brand menu that appeals to existing customers and consumers seeking plant-based entrees.
Plant-based menu decisions will primarily be driven by supply-side business realities. Specific product preferences, durations of limited time offers, and recipe costs will be deciding factors in how quickly and expansively a restaurant can overhaul a menu to focus on plant-based dishes.
Creating Meat Flavor Profiles (Without Meat)
Chefs who are unaccustomed to meatless protein options may find the challenge of creating new dishes exciting. Chef Doug notes that, with items like meatless bacon, the flavor profile isn’t the most difficult aspect to nail. “With vegan bacon, the texture is the hardest element to recreate,” he concedes. With perseverance, chefs can overcome these obstacles and serve tantalizing meat-free meals.
Chef Doug also points out that unlocking the flavor of plant-based protein is linked to experimentation and creativity. To illustrate, he highlights a vegan protein option that is derided in many circles — tofu. “Many people have problems with tofu because they don’t like the soft texture,” Chef Doug comments. “But this is a neutral-palate food that you can do anything with: you can grill it, you can marinate it, you can use it in stir-fries.”
He explains that his wife opened up new possibilities by introducing him to a traditional Chinese method of preparing tofu. “She told me to dice it, add some filtered water, and boil the tofu for 10 minutes,” he recalls. “What a difference that made! It opens up the pores and increases absorption so you can add soy sauce, chili sauce, or sesame oil to a much greater effect.”
Embracing plant-based foods may seem intimidating, but investing the time into a plant-centric menu is a smart business move going into 2020. Stock your kitchen with the right equipment and set yourself up for long-term success. Are you just starting in the industry? Check out Chef Doug’s top tips for new chefs on our blog.