With Veganuary ending and reports that ten times as many people tried plant-based food last month (I was one of them), The Caterer’s Plant-Based Summit 2022 provided an insightful look at the vegan market, as well as fascinating discussions on the challenges and opportunities for operators, manufacturers and chefs.

It’s all about Flexitarians

Despite the success of Veganuary the figures are low for consumers who recognise themselves as vegan (1%), with the vegetarian population at 7%. But this doesn’t mean plant-based should  be an afterthought. The biggest category trying out plant-based is in fact flexitarians (42%). Driven by women, this market is growing very quickly as consumers take steps to eat better. In fact 45%  of consumers are reducing meat and fish consumption (especially beef), with 50% having bought a meat alternative. It’s not just meat either, over a quarter of people (26%) have cut down on their dairy too.

Though only 1% of consumers are vegan, they are the most important diner when it comes to bookings! Like Coeliacs who have a gluten-free diet – a vegan consumer will have the most influence where an entire party will eat, depending on whether the vegan options appeal.

The Drivers

So what’s driving this change in eating habits? Health either for lifestyle or medical reasons is key,  with the pandemic showing us just how valuable (and fragile) our health can be. The planet is another influence – and this isn’t just Gen Z – we are all far more conscious of the impact we’re having. Food fashion, social media and more celebrities talking about the benefits of plant-based have all been adding to the rise of vegan foods.

Think Plant-First When it comes to Menu Planning

When menu planning, plant-based and vegan dishes shouldn’t be an afterthought or an ‘option’ on menus. Based on the insights and the growth of the market, operators and chefs need to put plant-based front and centre when it comes their menus. It’s also essential to understand different types of consumers and to make sure they are all catered for – that includes vegan, vegetarian, dairy-free and gluten-free. Along with lifestyle and ethical motivators, many people have special diets for medical reasons.

Think about Day Parts

Like many of us I start my Monday morning with the best intentions and by Friday evening they’ve gone – the same goes with the demand for plant-based. Consumers will be looking for healthier eats earlier in the day and week, and more indulgent options towards the evening and latter part of the week. There needs to be a balance and choice that supports changes in taste – a dirty vegan burger or curry is not enough to cater for the entire week.

Language is Key!

We all  know that when eating out the most appealing descriptors will excite us into choosing a dish. So, choosing your words wisely will make an enormous difference when it comes to the appeal of your plant-based menu. Experts recommend avoiding words such as option, substitute and alternative – to avoid making diners feel they have a lesser dish compared to vegetarian and meat diners. Descriptive language is important no matter the dish. As with any meat dishes, your plant-based recipe will need a focus so it can compete and have a chance against other dishes – where possible using descriptors consumers will recognise can help e.g., no fried chicken, chargrilled cauliflower burger – you get the idea!

Interestingly the term vegan can give a lot of confidence to consumers who are vegan but can be limiting on consumer appeal. The panel believed that the term ‘plant-based’ was more inclusive and could encourage meat-free eating, but a reassuring ‘v’ would help vegans navigate menus who want a specific guarantee on a dish’s credentials. Whatever you do it’s essential not to segment your vegan dishes on your menu or make them look like an afterthought. Keeping them integrated will enhance you customers’ menu experience and operators are advised not to hero just the one vegan dish. Choice is essential and Wagamama is praised for this, with 50% of its menus now vegan.

Cooking Plant-Based

Colour and texture are key, chefs can take inspiration from the seasons for nutritional and appealing ingredients. Don’t be afraid to use your chef skills to approach vegan cuisine as you would meat. Using techniques such as roasting and chargrilling will help to bring out exciting flavours and textures. Global cuisines are fantastic for inspiration, with many being plant-based focused, incorporating aromatic herbs and spices that can add an extra dimension to vegan foods and help elevate your dish.

Plant-Based 2.0

Based on all the insight the plant-based movement isn’t a fad, it’s mainstream and here to stay. As consumers we are becoming increasingly focused on health, our planet, as well as the cost of living. There are predictions that red meat is likely to be taxed because of its impact on the environment and health, which means more consumers will be looking at vegetarian and plant-based offerings. Over on retail you are already seeing this shift in demand with more shelf space being given to plant-based products. In fact Tesco has promised to grow sales by 300% by 2027. Over in hospitality there is a growing  number of  plant-based restaurants opening with 100% vegan menus. This demand will result in a need for innovation in plant-based products and manufacturers developing alternatives that have smaller and clean ingredient labels. We can look forward to more pure, natural and raw products coming into the market such as Pea Protein.

Ones to Watch

So what’s exciting the panel in 2022 and what will we be eating? Well, it was a mix and one I’m here for…seaweed, peas, milk based proteins and even meat printing!

A big thank you to the Caterer and hosts Caroline Baldwin and Emma Lake for a very insightful morning, you can watch the full webinar here www.thecaterersummits.com/2022/en/page/plant-based-summit-recording