Reducing the theme of this year’s Menus of Change Summit to a T-shirt slogan seems sacrilegious. Set in the Culinary Institute of America’s majestic campus overlooking the Hudson, with presenters ranging from famous writers to world-renowned chefs and academicians sporting an alphabet of degrees after their names, the event is the industry’s brainiest effort by far to put wellness and sustainability on restaurant menus.
But, damn, if “no pain, no gain” just didn’t seem to fit.
A more appropriate mission statement for the three-day event might have been the mantra offered by host Greg Drescher, the CIA’s VP of strategic initiatives and industry leadership: “How do we make health the default choice?”
And that, as speakers attested, takes some labor, literally. They detailed some of the challenges that have emerged as the industry makes real process in genetically engineering health and sustainability into its DNA.
1. ‘Plant forward’ has a root problem
One of the most-discussed ways of promoting health and helping the planet was the so-called plant-forward trend—leading restaurant customers to order a dish showcasing vegetables rather an animal protein. One of the selling points for operators had been the impact on food costs. In-season vegetables typically cost less than a serving of meat.
But a number of speakers noted the financial benefits are tempered by the increased labor and skill that a vegetable-heavy dish might require. “Cooking vegetables is much more labor intensive than cooking a piece of meat,” said John Fraser, chef-owner of Dovetail, Nix and Narcissa restaurants in New York City. And that can make a plant-forward selection a little less accessible.
“If I have a $2.50 avocado, I’m not going to charge $4 for it, I’m going to charge $10, because I might have touched it five times,” he explained.
2. How much cost leeway is there?
Fraser described his plant-forward restaurants as accessible, since checks might average $65 a person, a modest price in New York City’s fine-dining scene. But not everyone could afford such a meal, regardless of the health benefits, said Tony Cochones, VP of culinary operations for the 25-unit Glory Days Grill sports-bar chain.
“It’s also important to be mindful of how much money people have,” said Cochones, a former fine-dining chef who described himself as an unabashed booster of the plant-forward movement. But he also acknowledged his own food insecurity as a youth, and stressed that not every consumer can pay for perceived benefits.
For that reason, “incrementalism is very important,” he said. Cochones noted that his chain has taken steps like offering grilled watermelon as a substitution for French fries, and featuring simple dishes like grilled asparagus.
There’s no doubt, he said, the plant-forward trend is surging forward. “In a sports bar environment, when you sell 1,500 Brussel sprouts appetizer [per week], you know something’s up,” said Cochones. “People who ignore it do so at their own peril.”
3. Getting credit for the effort
Despite the health and environmental benefits of shifting consumption from meat to vegetables, there’s still a portion of the population that misses the payback, said Mary Stebbins, director of operations for Mark’s Feed Store BBQ chain.
“We understand the importance of the sustainability model that’s come forward and what it means for people, but we find that only about 20% of people get that, said Stebbins. “It’s our responsibility to start educating people about that.”
“We used to think we just sold food,” she said. “Now it’s a whole different thing.”
4. Capturing drink sales
One of the challenges for a restaurant playing to the health and sustainability-minded is selling alcoholic beverages. “That’s changing, said Dovetail’s Fraser. Still, “people who are careful about what they put in their body with vegetables are going to be careful about what they put in their bodies as beverages.”
5. Dodging the data
Another key theme of the Summit was reducing food waste. Although much of that discussion focused on repurposing scraps from prep—“We don’t call it ‘waste,’ we call it ‘ingredients’ now,” said Feed Store’s Stebbins—there were mentions of how routinely gathered data could help. The problem is that staffs often don’t use it.
Glory Days’ Cochones recounted how the chain’s kitchen teams still go by gut and misjudge how much food to prepare. “They’ll tell me, ‘we sell about 16 of these desserts,’” and prepare that many accordingly, he explained. After looking at the sales records, “I’ll say, ‘no, you sold eight. So make nine.’”
“I see a lot of operations,” said Brad Barnes, director of the CIA’s consulting and industry programs. “I’d say about 80% of them don’t use the data to any sort of advantage. Most of them don’t know how to use the data. How do we learn to make the right amount, to buy the right amount?”