What Does the Plant-Based Trend Mean for the Food Industry and for Consumers?

MRM's "Ask the Expert” features advice from Consolidated Concepts Inc. Please send questions to Modern Restaurant Management (MRM) magazine Executive Editor Barbara Castiglia at bcastiglia@modernrestaurantmanagement.com.

Q: Given the recent surge in demand for alternate meat products, what does this trend mean for the food industry and for consumers?

A: Plant-based proteins seem like the one trend that the foodservice industry just can't seem to stop talking about.  It's officially the biggest deal since the cronut. 

For starters, I should remind you that the alternate meat market is a tiny drop in the overall bucket of the foodservice industry.  Meat alternatives make up a mere fraction of a percentage of the total protein market and we’re not seeing these alternative meat sales cut into the animal protein market in any way.  That said, the largest meat producers in the country, such as Tyson, have made investments into alternate meat production, so they do see it as a viable market going forward.

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 Culturally, the trend represents a consumer open-mindedness about alternate proteins and vegetarianism.  From a culinary perspective, new products like Impossible are a vast improvement when compared to previous options like soy protein, seitan or veggie burgers. Impossible’s products are quite similar in taste and texture to meat; and I have personally eaten variations of their products in several different applications (burgers, meatballs, tacos, ‘sloppy Joe’s, etc.).  So, if you combine the cultural shift with the culinary development of better tasting products, restaurant operators can now attract both vegetarians – who may not have been in their target market before – as well as meat-eaters who are curious about trying the products or wanting to explore a less animal-based diet.  

I expect the trend of plant-based popularity to continue for several years, at least. After all, chains like Burger King and KFC, whose concepts are rooted in the sales of animal proteins, are inviting non-meat-eaters into their doors to try their versions of the meatless burger or chicken sandwich, and creating great PR buzz all the while.  But in the grand scheme of the industry, this is by no means the end of meat as we know it.

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All of this is good news for restaurants who benefit from having new products to experiment with and new dishes to offer their guests.  The veggie burger, in its old iteration, was a generally bland and mushy option that restaurants essentially had to keep on their menu (and in their freezer) to satisfy a niche guest – and it was usually sold for several dollars less than meat menu items.  Now a burger bar or bistro can actually upcharge a guest for an Impossible burger and guests are willing to pay. However, it is important for restaurant operators to decide on their plant-based direction by answering questions such as:

  1. Are you replacing the meat on your menu with something that looks, feels and tastes similar or are you encouraging your customers to try eating jackfruit in their tacos instead of pork? 
  2. Is this an alternative for vegetarians or omnivores to try or a seed that will sprout into a new 'lifestyle restaurant' concept? 

Whatever you decide, keep in mind that restaurants need to anticipate and solve supply issues at the outset.  This includes also deciding what the ultimate goal is for the new offering. Are you looking for a long-term profit driver for your operation, or a quick sell-out that will put the media in a frenzy? (Hint – there's no predicting viral popularity.)  Supply-side issues will likely drive plant-based business decisions, including specific product choices, length of LTOs, recipe costs, and culinary possibilities.