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Restaurants Can Differentiate Themselves and Grow with Plant Based Foods

As U.S. consumers return to restaurants, operators should embrace plant-based foods to differentiate themselves and boost business in the new world of post-pandemic foodservice.

A webinar sponsored by DMA (Distribution Market Advantage) and presented by The Food Institute on May 20 detailed research showing why foodservice operators should look toward plant-based options, and showcased products that could be easily adapted to expand menu offerings.

Marie Molde, account executive at Datassential, noted that while 69% of U.S. consumers define themselves as “meat eaters” and just 6% as “vegan,” there is huge opportunity in the “flexitarian” segment (people who will occasionally eat meat but prefer plant-based products). Currently, 14% of U.S. consumers are “flexitarian” but that number will increase to 22% in the next three years, she said.

Molde also said that 58% of consumers want to increase their intake of plant-based foods. Seventy percent cite health reasons and 62% believe plant-based foods are better for the environment. With that, climate-based food options are beginning to show up on menus, particularly in fast casual restaurants such as Panera and Just Salad.

To satisfy consumer demand, many foodservice operators are giving consumers a choice between traditional meat and plant-based options. Ruby Tuesday sells the Sweet Earth Awesome Burger and Rubio’s Coastal Grill has an Impossible Taco Salad. McDonalds is even experimenting with a PLT sandwich.

Plant-based recipe inspirations

Nestle Professional Corporate Executive Chef Matthew Jordan inspired viewers to develop plant-based food that will encourage social network sharing while bringing in dollars and profits. His Sweet Earth Avocado Toast combined avocadoes, Mindful Chicken, onions and a wealth of tasty ingredients to create a knife-and-fork toast that would sell for $10 a plate at a fast casual restaurant. His Mindful Chicken Fried Rice combines napa cabbage, green onions, rice and plant-based chicken to create an entrée that will please consumers looking for poultry alternatives.

Chef Priyanka Naik created a Crispy Stuffed Poblano large enough to feed a family of four. She noted that her Indian culinary heritage has always relied on plant-based foods and that her style of cuisine is being embraced by her Gen Z followers.

Today’s foodservice darling is the chicken sandwich with fries. But with all the innovation surrounding meat alternatives, tomorrow’s might be a plant-based chicken sandwich with a three-bean salad.

Ron Tanner, currently a senior advisor for The Food Institute, has observed and reported on the food industry for more than four decades, including 33 years with the Specialty Food Association. He has also presented hundreds of educational programs about the industry.