In response to the booming popularity of plant-based eating, plant-forward dishes are popping up on restaurant menus all around the country. And these dishes aren’t confined to food service establishments that specifically identify as vegetarian or vegan. In fact, these days, customers can quite easily find pan-seared cauliflower steak on the menu at their favorite steakhouse alongside traditional ribeyes and T-bones or black bean and quinoa patties on offer at their local burger joint.
What’s interesting about this proliferation of plant-based dishes is that it reflects a broader truth about plant-based eating today—namely, that all kinds of consumers, even those who still eat animal protein, are looking to reduce their meat consumption and eat more vegetables and fruits. From a food industry perspective, this means that including plant-based options on a menu isn’t only about appealing to the 6 percent of Americans who are vegan, it’s about attracting the 52 percent of Americans who say they are trying to incorporate more plant-based meals into their everyday lives.
This “flexitarian” eating approach, as it’s called, offers a huge opportunity for menu innovation for all food industry players, including quick service and fast casual restaurants. What’s more, creating a more plant-forward menu doesn’t have to be a major challenge. For restaurants that are looking for simple ways to boost their plant-based menu offerings, the following tips are a great place to start.
1. Work with what you have.
It’s not necessary to completely overhaul your inventory if you wish to start offering plant-based dishes. Most restaurants will likely already have enough ingredient combinations on hand to create at least one or two simple, plant-based dishes. For example, standard spaghetti (made without eggs), along with fresh tomatoes, spinach, olive oil, garlic, and seasonings, makes a delicious and easy vegan dish. Other simple offerings include avocado toast or burrito bowls with rice, beans, guacamole, and salsa. All of these dishes make smart use of ingredients you already have to create meals that are completely free of animal proteins.
2. Try customizable options.
Another easy way to make existing offerings vegan- or vegetarian-friendly is to employ a “build your own” approach to meal creation. Plant-based eaters can have the option to simply exclude any unwanted animal proteins from their dish. At a sandwich bar, for example, vegetarian customers could request cheese, tomatoes, and cucumbers on their sandwich but forgo the ham, while vegan customers could also skip the cheese and instead choose sprouts or lettuce. Again, this approach allows restaurants to offer plant-based options without having to make dramatic changes to their inventory or ordering process.
3. Make simple swaps.
Replacing animal protein products with plant-based options is easier than ever today. Due to high demand, many plant-based products are readily available at a reasonable cost. Furthermore, many animal protein products can be swapped out for plant-based products, meaning you won’t have to devise new recipes or make other significant menu changes. For example, a huge range of plant-based milk, from soy to almond to coconut, can be used as alternatives for cow’s milk in coffee beverages like lattes. This is a simple switch that greatly expands the customer base for these offerings. Similarly, for dishes like fajitas, tofu can be prepared using the same methods and seasonings as the more traditional protein of chicken or beef.
4. Get creative with flavors.
On today’s menus, the most important rule of plant-based dishes is that they shouldn’t be boring. Customers are not just looking for an absence of animal proteins, they also want great taste. This means that restaurants need to get creative with flavors, but again, this doesn’t have to be as complicated as it sounds. For example, executive chef Carolyn Corcoran names smoked paprika as her go-to flavor-boosting ingredient. According to Corcoran, smoked paprika isn’t spicy, but it adds an intriguing smoky flavor that evokes barbecued and grilled dishes. Smart use of spices and flavorings like this are an effective way to enhance plant-based dishes (and to compensate for some of the flavor lost due to the absence of animal fat).
5. Emphasize fresh ingredients.
In addition to creative flavors, fresh ingredients are particularly important when it comes to plant-based dishes. Restaurants looking to include more plant-based menu offerings need to work carefully with suppliers to make sure that produce is as fresh and high quality as possible. But while this may involve some extra work on the sourcing side, it pays off when it comes to preparation (i.e., you won’t have to do very much to exceptionally fresh seasonal vegetables to turn them into a delicious meal).
6. Highlight plant-based choices.
Finally, for restaurants that do have plant-based items on the menu, don’t be shy about announcing it! Highlight those dishes on in-store or online menus (using the “V” symbol for vegan-friendly dishes is common), and include descriptors like “vegan-friendly” or “plant-based options” in online and social media marketing materials.