It’s a fact that more and more people are choosing to reduce their meat consumption when eating out. There is a fundamental shift in consumers’ diets, and it isn’t only vegetarians and vegans seeking out plant-based menu options within hospitality. 65% of Europeans are looking to reduce their meat intake, which means there is a real need for operators to increase their meat-free options.

The pandemic has caused many people to be more conscious of their food intake, considering health and nutrition factors before making decisions, with many discovering the positives of plant-based foods. In fact, 92% of plant-based meals are eaten by non-vegans. The main reasons cited as health concerns, the impact of the environment, animal welfare and religion or beliefs.

If those weren’t reasons enough to indulge in a few more plant-based menu choices, another would be that our current diet simply isn’t sustainable. The daunting fact is, that if we continue to see population growth, by 2050 we would need to increase food production by 70%, and there simply isn’t enough land to do this.
Plant-based products have a smaller carbon footprint – generating less greenhouse gas emissions, using less fresh water and less energy to produce. A big win for the planet.

But is there a win for the operators?

In a recent report, 73% of consumers felt that offering plant-based food improves the image of the restaurant, and 41% of consumers are willing to pay more for it.
The shift is being driven by the high street chains. Over the last couple of years, we have seen a number of high-profile products, such as:

• Greggs Vegan Sausage Roll – this became one of their fastest selling products and contributed to 13.5% growth vs 7.2% year on year.
• Leon Vegan Burgers – the chipotle and avocado burgers sold better than expected, and vegan burgers are now out-selling meat-based burgers.
• Subway Meatless Meatball Marinara Sub – 46% of consumers purchasing this were new buyers resulting in incremental revenue.

It seems that adding plant-based menu items can have a great halo effect for operators, attracting new customers and increasing footfall. Another win, resulting in a plant-based hattrick!

A recent Arena panel discussion including Paul Dickinson, Director of Food, Fuller, Smith & Turner PLC; David Mulcahy, Food Innovation and Sustainability Director, Sodexo UK & Ireland; Lizzy Barber, Head of Brand, The Hush Collection – Haché, Cabana and Hush; Salima Vellani, Founder and CEO, Absurd Bird / KBox Global and Kate Alexander, Head of Commercial Channels, Nestlé Professional, highlighted some interesting points around the issue of plant-based. The top ten highlights of which are summarised below:

1. Language – No operator wants to alienate customers, so the choice of language used on menus is crucial. Vegan can be a polarising term so plant-based is often favoured when it comes to menu descriptions.
2. Innovation – Once a plant-based dish is added to a menu it will often sell well but sales tend to drop off over time, as consumers want new and exciting dishes in this space, so constant innovation is key. Something that has been made easier in recent years as food producers have focused NPD on the growing demand for meat free. For example, vegan cheeses have come on in leaps and bounds since the plastic atrocities that were around a few years back.
Another aspect of the innovation in this space is the type of ingredients being used to create meat free alternatives, from oats and legume mixes to fungi, peas, soybeans, chickpeas and even beetroot – we’re pulling them and mixing them to emulate meat in a myriad of ways.
However, it would seem that format innovation is limited, with most players focusing on a core range of burger, mince, sausages and meatballs (understandably as these are the most versatile formats) – but perhaps here is one area where brands can differentiate and set themselves apart.
3. Chef skills – Good chefs are favouring plant-based as it offers up more scope for creativity and enables them to showcase their cheffing skills. From swede pasta to watermelon steak, plant-based dishes offer an opportunity for chefs to show what they can do whilst being seasonal and sustainable.
4. Vegetables vs. meat alternatives – With so much focus on meat alternatives there are some quarters who feel there is an argument for treating whole vegetables as centre plate affairs, rather than simply taking meat based dishes and substituting the meat for a meat alternative option e.g., burger, mince, meatball, etc. In this way whole cauliflowers make great roasts, even carrots can become the star of the show when done right.
5. Education – The story around ‘why?’ we are moving to plant-based is especially relevant when it comes to schools. This is an area Sodexo has focused on with resources to help children understand how their food choices affect both themselves and the planet.
6. Healthy – Interestingly, plant-based is often perceived as healthier, but this is not necessarily the case. They are not always lower in calories or more nutritious and indeed some are just as processed as any other meat based processed food. At the extreme you also have the dirty vegan trend with operators like Biff’s Kitchen offering real indulgence. So, a blanket assumption that plant-based is healthy is a dangerous one in a time when HFSS legislation is on the horizon, and we have a national obesity crisis.
7. Transparency – Provenance and origin is also a key factor when it comes to plant-based. One positive that has come out of Brexit is the renewed focus on sourcing seasonal UK produce to avoid tricky imports. With consumer interest in where their food comes from at an all-time high, citing origin on menus is up there with offering plant-based options.
8. Carbon footprint – The environmental impact of our choices is something consumers are also far more attuned to than ever and it seems the next development on the horizon is likely to be signposting the carbon footprint of dishes so consumers can make informed choices when eating out or choosing a delivery. Not an easy feat, but the likes of E Mission are doing all they can to make it happen.
9. Proliferation – It is fair to say we are seeing a genuine cultural shift to plant-based and away from meat which can only be a good thing. This is no phase, it’s a real shift (a tsunami of plant-based as Salima put it). But as with any new market driven by consumer demand there has been a proliferation of new entrants into the market. The big players like The Vegetarian Butcher (Unilever) and Green Gourmet (Nestle) have been keen to get a piece of the action joining the likes of Seitan, Beyond Meat, Future Farm and many more, as well as smaller authentic brands like Gold & Green Pulled Oats (one of our lovely clients). So where once there was just Quorn, now there are literally dozens of brands all competing for this growing market. It will be interesting to see which succeed. I suspect (amongst other factors) it will be down to…
10. Taste – In all the talk of vegan, plant-based, sustainability, responsibility, food waste and so on, taste remains at the heart of why we eat the food we do and is just as important for plant-based as it is for meat. The key to successful plant-based operators, dishes and brands will, as ever, come down to taste delivery, as some things never change.

Sources: BBC News 2020, Datassential 2019, KANTAR 2019, Euromonitor 2020