Grow your plant-based menu

Make it more than a trend with appetizing and approachable dishes.
White plates and a wooden serving tray filled with plant-based foods

Remember the 1980s original gangsters, Boca Burgers and Gardenburger? Thanks to 21st century food science, plant-based foods have come a long way, and they are here to stay.

Restaurant operators today are thinking far beyond the bun. With plant-based foods that look and taste like beef, poultry, seafood, eggs, milk, etc., the challenge is figuring out how to add them to the menu and build loyalty.

Several Gordon Food Service experts explained why it makes sense to offer plant-based options and ways you can market them.

Menu callouts matter

Veg-centric dining, meatless Mondays and mindful eating have changed the menu landscape. Even so, “vegan” or “vegetarian” callouts spook many mainstream diners. As with all parts of the menu, authenticity works, according to Texas-based Culinary Specialist Matt Dummar. 

“People have it in their mind that vegan or vegetarian doesn’t taste good, so there’s no need to call it out,” he said. “The vegans will know. The rest of your customers don’t have to worry because they will enjoy it if you make something thoughtful.”

He advises operators to create a plant-based appetizer, burger or LTO but not make a big deal about it. Dishes using alt-proteins will catch on if they are appetizing and approachable.

“Build a menu item that includes a plant-based product. Taste it, and come up with sauces and sides that help it stand on its own as a thoughtfully chef-crafted recipe,” Dummar suggests.

Health and social appeal

Success of plant-based menu items will depend on how they are described and how the waitstaff is trained to talk about them, explains Illinois-based Culinary Specialist Bill Barker.

“Operators can easily promote themselves as earth and health friendly,” he said. “Consumers don’t have to worry about allergens, steroids or antibiotics, and parents can feel confident their kids are eating safely.”

When consumers feel good about choosing plant-based foods, restaurants can double down on their messaging about using environmentally friendly disposables or takeout packaging. The combination of plant-based food and thoughtful packaging enhances the whole operation.

The National Restaurant Association’s “State of the Restaurant Industry Report 2022” shows eight of the top 10 trends are directly or indirectly related to sustainability and plant-based products.

“There’s already a perception that plant-based is better for the environment and that definitely goes hand-in-hand with talking about sustainability,” said Abby Windau, a Business Solutions Specialist in Ohio.

Watch for limitations

Between veg-centric dining and plant-based possibilities, the audience is vast, but not unlimited. 
Despite all the trend predictions, Windau warns that some people could be turned away because plant-based foods are processed and often not low-calorie options.

“A lot depends on the operator, their brand and target audience. As with everything, people want options,” Windau said. “If people think it’s healthy, it might continue to grow – you just have to pay attention to your customers.”

That’s especially true for steakhouses, Barker advises. There’s no reason to stray from steaks. Just remember, plant-based foods occupy more than the center of the plate. He points to a croissant made with Zero Egg that’s the best he’s ever tasted. There also are plant-based milks that can be used in sauces or dressings.

Other suggestions: avoid price callouts or brand names. 

“People don’t like the idea of paying restaurant prices for vegetables,” Dummar said. “So make it special – thoughtfully prepared and presented, with flavors people can’t prepare at home”. 

And, unless your customers expect a brand name,  just refer to plant-based instead of “Beyond” or “Impossible,” Dummar notes. “As new products come on line, you might find one you like better and you won’t have an easy way to change.” 

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