Plant-based foods are potentially poised for world domination—provided they taste as delicious, comforting and all-around palate-pleasing as their conventional foodservice menu counterparts.
While WGB sister market research firm Technomic finds that 34% of consumers eat dishes that could be classified as vegetarian or vegan at least once a week, the Chicago-based company also emphasizes that in the highly competitive foodservice space, it’s not enough to be simply “good for you.”
“There’s definitely room for improvement in terms of taste, as less than a third of consumers agree that restaurants do a good job of providing vegetarian/vegan options that taste good,” said Bret Yonke, manager of consumer insights for Technomic. “Yes, consumers want to be healthy, but foodservice occasions are often driven by ‘craveability,’ so anything to spice these dishes up and make them more exciting or tasty is an opportunity.”
It’s an X factor of flavor that New Seasons Market of Portland, Ore., has harnessed with its “Customer Favorite” Vegan Chick’n Parmesan. A collaboration with local chef Heidi Lovig of Heidi Ho Organics, the vegan version of New Seasons’ classic deli chicken Parmesan has been a smash success with shoppers.
“No longer do you have to sacrifice with [meat and dairy] alternatives,” Michele Simon, executive director of the Plant Based Foods Association, told WGB Contributing Editor Phil Lempert during a session at the Winter Fancy Food Show in San Francisco earlier this year.
“The hottest trend here at the Fancy Food Show—with 1,500 exhibitors and over 100,000 products—comes down to one term: ‘plant-based,’” said Lempert, who pointed to the scores of plant-based specialty foods on the show floor.
But it’s not just specialty and natural suppliers throwing their hats into the multibillion-dollar plant-based arena, Lempert said. Vevey, Switzerland-based Nestle SA, the largest food and beverage company in the world, is set to launch a vegan meatless Incredible Burger under the Garden Gourmet label this spring.
According to joint data from San Francisco-based Plant Based Foods Association and New York-based Nielsen, the plant-based category saw dollar sales growth of 20% in 2018, with sales topping $3.3 billion, compared to growth of only 8% in 2017.
“We’re definitely on-trend,” Simon said. While the plant-based foods industry has been around for decades, a swell of innovation is changing the landscape one delicious bite at a time. “Even now the conventional food companies are realizing that they have to be part of this consumer trend.”
Simon sees a “mainstreaming” of consumer interest in healthier eating coupled with innovations that have dramatically elevated the tastiness of plant-based foods as fueling this movement. But when it comes to labeling dishes in the prepared foods or deli case, Simon told WGB grocers may want to reconsider the terms “vegan” or “vegetarian.”
With the rise in flexitarian eating, which sees more consumers who don’t identify as strictly vegan or vegetarian choosing meatless and dairy-free options for some eating occasions, “plant-based” is a more inclusive term, she suggests.
Planting Local Seeds
A look at the rising stars in the foodservice landscape reveals the importance of plant-based foods that are well-prepared and from familiar sources. “Overall, vegetable-forward limited service restaurants, such as Sweetgreen, Chop’t, Tender Greens and Cava Grill, are a promising category that experienced solid growth in 2017,” Yonke said.
“Striving to be healthier is a key purchase driver when it comes to plant-based options, so claims like ‘local’ and ‘organic’ ladder up to that nicely and fit those lifestyle choices,” he said.
Consider Georgetown, Md.-based Sweetgreen, which has consumers lining up around the block for its plant-focused, scratch cooking with an emphasis on transparency, sustainability and locally sourced ingredients.
Meanwhile, Chop’t, a New York-based purveyor of salads and bowls, says on its website, “When it comes to supporting (and enjoying) our local communities, we strive to form long-term partnerships with local food artisans, farmers, small businesses and culinary incubators with better practices and better food.”
Each location of Culver City, Calif.-based Tender Greens is run by its own chef and “guided by seasonal flavors, grown by local farmers and inspired by personal tastes,” according to its website.
And Cava in Rockville, Md., which expects to have 75 locations up and running by year’s end, promotes its work with its local communities to foster healthy eating and urban gardening skills.
Plant-Based Burger Joints
Plant-based protein is helping to transform the all-American burger into a nutritious and highly craveable menu item. Fast-food chain White Castle of Columbus, Ohio, known for its classic beef sliders, began testing plant-based Impossible Burger sliders last spring. The Silicon Valley-based Impossible Burgers were such a hit, the plant-based patties are now available nationwide at about 377 White Castle locations.
Austin, Texas-based Hopdoddy Burger Bar, with more than 30 locations in seven states, features an Impossible Burger on its menus. It also promotes its relationship with a nationwide network of farms and ranchers favored by Demeter, an international Biodynamic certifier.
And earlier this year, Carl’s Jr. debuted the charbroiled Beyond Famous Star With Cheese, featuring the 100% plant-based Beyond Meat patty created by Beyond Meat of El Segundo, Calif. Carl’s Jr. of Nashville offers consumers a crash course in Beyond Meat on its website, including the protein count for the Beyond Famous Star With Cheese: 30 grams.