Plant-based entrees were named on several forecasters’ top trends lists for 2016, positioning Mediterranean-focused fast casuals in a sweet spot. With 170 locations, Zoës Kitchen ranks first in that category in sales and units, but the competition is heating up. To stay ahead of the pack, corporate chef Antonio Iocchi created a new vegetarian entree salad, bringing in an ingredient not seen before in the fast-casual space, he says.
1. Finding inspiration overseas
Iocchi, who grew up in Italy, tapped the native lupini bean to star in Zoës Live Med Salad, launched in February. “Everyone knows fava beans, but Italian lupinis are unique to [U.S.] fast casuals,” he asserts. Zoës imports the beans packed in brine, like olives, so they require no prep—a key attribute, as 99 percent of the menu is fresh and scratchmade, says Iocchi.
2. Protein power
Zoës aims to be a destination for vegans, Iocchi says, and the chain calls out such items on the menu. So he and his team regularly look to legumes to give plant-based dishes a protein boost. A cup of lupini beans provides 26 grams of protein, along with high amounts of fiber and B-complex vitamins.
3. Hands-on training
Farro, feta cheese and Calabrian pepper dressing reinforce the healthy Mediterranean message. But zucchini ribbons got the most enthusiastic consumer response in test. For this fancier presentation, Iocchi held in-person training with Zoës’ regional directors. The team at each location learned the technique through an online portal.
4. Telling the story
To educate guests on lupinis, marketing is leaning on Chef Iocchi to share his childhood memories. His experience enjoying the beans “as snacks, like peanuts,” along with the bean’s nutrition info, are printed on table tents. The story also is being told in social media and internally to team members, so they can explain the salad’s heritage to guests.
Now that Iocchi has an established vendor to export the beans, he plans to cross-utilize the lupinis in other menu applications. “They are very adaptable to spreads, like hummus, as well as soups,” he says.