Meatless eating isn’t just for Mondays anymore. Over the past decade, plant-based eating has grown from a niche trend into a global phenomenon that shows no signs of slowing down. As a result, restaurants around the world, including fast casual and quick service brands, are facing a rather unexpected dilemma: find ways to become more plant-focused, or be left behind by the rapidly evolving food landscape.
For restaurants that find themselves in this position, especially ones whose identity and/or business model has long revolved around meat, it’s essential to first understand what the plant-based eating movement is all about before figuring out how to respond to it. Here are some of the most important points about plant-based eating that restaurants need to take into account:
Plant-based eating is here to stay.
The biggest thing that restaurant brands need to understand about plant-based eating is that it’s much more than a fad soon to be forgotten. Rather, it reflects a profound shift in our attitude toward food consumption and production and, consequently, our eating habits. According to a recent report from GlobalData, the number of US consumers who identified as vegan increased a remarkable 600 percent between 2014 and 2017—and experts predict that this will only increase in the coming years. This means that ignoring plant-based eating, waiting for it to go away, is simply not an option. If restaurants want to remain relevant to the next generation of consumers, it’s time for some serious reflection about how to incorporate their growing preference for plant-based options.
Millennials are the main drivers of plant-based eating.
Speaking of the “next generation” of consumers, it’s perhaps unsurprising that millennials are the most vocal proponents of the shift toward plant-based eating. Data from the research company Packaged Facts, for example, indicates that 37 percent of consumers between the ages of 25 and 39 seek out plant protein (compared with just 20 percent of all US adults). Similarly, a Canadian study conducted by Dalhousie University in 2018 showed that more than half of Canadians who identify as vegetarians and vegans were under the age of 35. It’s these younger consumers, therefore, that restaurant brands need to consider most when developing plant-based choices.
People choose plant-based eating for many different reasons.
Among consumers who adopt plant-based or plant-positive eating habits, reasons for doing so can vary widely. Some people cite concern for the environment (eating less meat is frequently promoted as one of the most important ways to fight climate change); some are motivated by ethical and animal welfare concerns; others are choosing to eat less meat and more plants for health reasons (major organizations like Kaiser Permanente and the American Institute for Cancer Research recommend a plant-based diet to reduce the risk of heart disease and other leading health issues); and others still may choose a combination of some or all of these reasons.
Great taste is the key to success with plant-based food choices.
Whatever the reason or reasons behind a consumer’s decision to adopt plant-based eating habits, the main thing they will be looking for from a restaurant’s plant-based menu offerings is flavor. Consumers are no longer satisfied with plant-based choices that appeal to their values but not their taste buds. Instead, they are looking for creative foods that make eating vegetables and plant-based proteins not just healthy, ethical, and sustainable, but delicious. Restaurants that are new to plant-based menus therefore need to think beyond the image traditionally conjured up by the term “vegan”—steamed broccoli, brown rice, and tofu come to mind—and embrace fresh ingredients and flavorful seasonings instead.
Embracing plant-based eating is a smart business choice.
It’s not always easy, but restaurants that are able to creatively incorporate plant-based options into their offerings find that their efforts pay off. According to a recent report from the information services company Technomic, 86 percent of restaurant operators said that including vegetarian dishes on their menu has had a significant impact on increasing sales and traffic, while 85 percent of operators said the same about vegan dishes.
Plant-based eating is not an all-or-nothing endeavor.
For restaurants that are nervous about whether or how to get on board with plant-based eating, the most important thing to remember is that it doesn’t mean dropping meat or animal proteins from menus entirely. Rather, it’s about offering a greater range and variety of options to contemporary consumers whose eating habits are increasingly flexible. For example, one California-based vegan fast-casual chain reports that 80 percent of its customers are neither vegetarian nor vegan—they’re simply among the growing number of people who still eat meat and animal proteins, but choose to do so less often.