Although the majority of consumers allow animal products in their diet, an increasing numbers are adopting flexitarian eating habits, meaning they typically eat a vegetarian diet but allow fish or meat on occasion. This move toward veg-centric eating signals a need for operators to adjust menus. Despite the fact that vegetarian fare is a must-have at restaurants, only roughly three in 10 consumers strongly agree that restaurants do a good job of providing tasty vegetarian dishes, according to Technomic’s Center of the Plate: Seafood & Vegetarian Consumer Trend Report. Operators should look to these four tactics to make their veg-centric offerings stand out, appealing even to the most carnivorous eaters.
Swap in veggies for meat
Popular dishes that traditionally feature meat could easily sub in vegetables to excite to both vegetarians and meat eaters alike. Since half of consumers (49%) say vegetarian dishes are just as filling as meat, operators should leverage these perceptions to build selling stories that drive veggie sales, according to Technomic. Operators have been doing this with cauliflower steak for years; next up is “Buffalo wing-ed” veggies. A new permanent small plate at California Pizza Kitchen, Spicy Buffalo Cauliflower features cauliflower florets that are prepared like Buffalo chicken wings—they’re fried with buttermilk batter, tossed in Sriracha Buffalo sauce and topped with a salad of celery, Gorgonzola and cilantro. Other veggies getting the Buffalo chicken wing treatment: cucumber (at Parm in New York City) and chickpeas (at Jukebox in Cleveland).
Add flavor through cooking
Of all the ways that flavor can be added to vegetables at a restaurant, the most appealing to consumers is through preparation style, according to Technomic. So while menuing veggies is one step to drawing in these flexitarian consumers, calling out the cooking technique of those veggies is a step-above idea that operators should steal. P.F. Chang’s newest vegetable dishes include Wok-Charred Brussels Sprouts and Cauliflower Tempura, both of which promote the preparation styles of the vegetables. Charring on the wok and battering and deep-frying (tempura-style) are two kitchen preps that not only lend profound flavor notes to vegetables, but also make the vegetables themselves seem more enticing to consumers.
New riffs on age-old classics
“Chain X unveils new veggie burger” may not be an eye-catching headline, but Hard Rock Cafe’s new version forgoes the standard black bean- or grain-based patty for something more innovative—cauliflower. While cauliflower may not have the savory quality of beef, the chain smartly infuses the burger with bold ingredients: Monterey Jack and garlic aioli top a patty that combines goat cheese, garlic and fried cauliflower bits, all imparting a mouthful of complementary tastes and textures.
Veggies first, literally
A menu that leads with its vegetable offerings sends diners a message that the restaurant prioritizes health and freshness. True Food Kitchen does this with its new menu section dedicated to veggies, which is listed even above Starters. The menu move also puts the chain in a position of veggie expert in the mind of consumers. Further, extending to nonvegetarian fare, we’ve seen a movement of operators titling menu items by the vegetable over the protein when a dish contains both. For example, Sweetgreen’s new Curry Cauliflower only mentions roasted chicken in the description, and Harold’s Cabin in Charleston, S.C., lists multiple menu items by the vegetable instead of the meat: “Carrot” is served with a rabbit wing, and “Cucumber” features local head-on shrimp.