How to Win at Plant-Based: Toolkit
The explosion in consumer demand for plant-based foods indicates that when foodservice gets plant-based right the results can be phenomenal. But, many restaurants are still sitting out the plant-based revolution, unsure how to position plant-based dishes for maximum appeal to mainstream consumers. Below are some ways to cash in on the plant-based opportunity.
I.4 Find culinary inspiration in our plant-based entrée database
I.1 Explore plant-based meat, eggs, and dairy in our product database
Visit our Product Database to discover spatula-ready plant-based products available via mainline foodservice distributors. Foodservice & restaurant operators can request samples via the company contact information on product listings.
1. Lead with flavor
Saying no to animal meat doesn’t mean saying no to flavor. 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 the JAMA Internal Medicine, four different descriptors were used for the same dish:
1) “Green beans” (basic description)
2) “Light ‘n’ low-carb green beans & shallots” (healthy restrictive description)
3) “Healthy energy-boosting green beans & shallots” (healthy positive description)
4) “Sweet sizzlin’ green beans and crispy shallots” (indulgent description).
The indulgent labeling led to people ordering the green beans 25% more than the basic description, 35% more than the healthy positive description, and 41% more than healthy restrictive.
Plant-based menu items shouldn’t be an afterthought or a blend of random vegetables. Rather, they should be positioned as equally indulgent and flavorful 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.
2. Embrace the health halo
According to market research firm Nielsen, 38% of US consumers associate plant proteins with positive health effects. Datassential’s Plant-Based Eating Keynote Report found the #1 reason (chosen by 49% of respondents) why US consumers are eating more plant-based is because they perceive them as healthier. Adding plant protein as a descriptor can cue health in the minds of consumers without indicating diminished flavor.
Since almost all plant-based foods are naturally free of cholesterol and saturated fats, and contain healthier fats (polyunsaturated or monounsaturated), 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.
3. 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. For example, it takes nine calories of food fed to a chicken to get one calorie back out in the form of meat, 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% of all climate change can be attributed to animal agriculture. By 2050, we will have about ten 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 US 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 plant-based demand.
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 an 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 the bottom line.
4. 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 night. 70% of Beyond Meat’s consumers are flexitarians, and 9 in 10 US 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 entrees compared to being listed in a separate “vegetarian” section.
5. 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% of millennials eat meat alternatives, with 30% eating meat alternatives every day and 50% eating meat alternatives a few times per week. 37% of Millennials plan to buy more meat alternatives next year. Having great plant meat (and eggs and dairy!) on your menu can help you attract this vital demographic.
6. Highlight the protein content
According to Nielsen, nearly half of consumers eat a form of protein with every meal. For one-fifth of consumers in the U.S. and Canada, plant-based proteins are among their preferred sources of protein.
Source: Datassential, Plant+Cellular Report, 2017
Source: Mintel, Meat Alternatives Report, 2017
The menu descriptions matter. Using “plant-based” or “plant protein” labeling instead of “vegetarian” or “vegan” on your 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.
Research from Mattson shows better consumer acceptance of “100% plant-based” vs. “vegan.”
The World Resources Institute’s Better Buying Lab is currently working with Panera, Hilton Hotels, Stanford University, Unilever, Sodexo, and others to identify ways to help consumers shift to more plant-based dishes. Preliminary research conducted by the Better Buying Lab has shown that even terms like meatless and meat-free should be avoided. When consumers are choosing foods in the moment, they don’t want to be reminded of what the food is not; labels should stress the positive aspects of the food — ideally with a focus on flavor.
Restaurants like Chipotle and Panera use a subtle letter “v” next to their vegan or vegetarian items while California Pizza Kitchen denotes plant-based dishes with a small leaf symbol. These are smart ways to let diners who eat a vegan or vegetarian diet know which menu items they can order while at the same time not alienating consumers who eat all kinds of foods.
These are not hard and fast rules, some restaurants can use vegan labeling successfully. Just use caution and consider your target audiences!
GFI has collected examples of innovative plant-based entrées from restaurants in all segments. Some use plant-based meat as the protein while others rely on whole food ingredients like legumes. Many have swapped out dairy cheese for plant-based cheese on pizzas and sandwiches.