The shift away from using meat and seafood as the foundations of restaurant meals has largely been a high-end phenomenon, with chefs’ mastery turning vegetables into stars of the plate. But the phenomenon is rapidly trickling down, as even mainstream fast-food chains test the mass market’s acceptance of plant-rich alternatives to traditional burgers and chicken sandwiches. And these options go far beyond a veggie burger.
Here’s a sampling of the chains that have recently turned a spotlight on so-called plant-forward options.
Sonic’s reduced-beef burger
The nation’s fourth-largest burger chain hasn’t been as adventurous as its larger rivals (McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s) in trying new customer draws. Its wildest innovations to date might have been mini hot dogs and multicolored drink blends.
That’s why its announcement last month of a new burger blending beef and ground mushrooms was a stunner. With more than 3,557 branches, Sonic is the largest restaurant operation by far to embrace what’s known as a blended burger, a common nod to health and sustainability within college dining halls. But it’s also as steeped as any quick-service competitor in a meat-and-potatoes tradition, with a drive-in format that harkens back to the 1950s.
The chain said it would test two blended burgers, both known as Sonic Slingers. Both feature a patty composed of ground beef and ground mushrooms in roughly a 75:25 ratio. One comes with a standard build. The other is topped with bacon.
The Slingers are also a clean-label product of sorts for the Oklahoma-based chain. The only ingredient added to the patties, according to executives, are spices.
The prices of the Slingers have not been revealed.
Luby’s ode to vegetables
The “first and foremost” change this summer in the menu of Luby’s is a showcasing of fresh vegetables, COO Peter Tripoli recently explained to the venerable cafeteria chain's investors. Individual stores can choose from a list that changes daily of what’s fresh. The options include roasted mushrooms, green beans, kale, cauliflower, purple cabbage, sweet potato and carrots.
Additional fresh items, including Brussels sprouts and roasted beets, are also offered as cold sides.
“Luby’s is one of the only restaurants you can go to to get such an abundant selection of fresh veggies inside every day,” said Tripoli. “We believe this really differentiates us.”
Sharky’s vegetable special
A salad is plant-forward almost by definition, but Sharky’s Woodfired Mexican Grill is underscoring that distinction with one of its limited-time options for the summer. The 28-unit fast-casual chain’s new Organic Roasted Vegetable Salad combines beets, grilled corn, carrots, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, sweet potato and mixed greens—all organic—into a salad that can serve as an entree.
The dressing is a walnut-cilantro vinaigrette.
Patrons with a more traditional bent can garnish the salad with wild-caught salmon, shrimp or preservative-free chicken.
Farmer Boys’ ‘shroom fest
Portobello mushrooms are no longer a novelty in chain restaurants’ kitchens, but the Farmer Boys fast-casual burger chain is giving the familiar item a twist: Patrons can have the meaty mushrooms cooked to order.
And that’s for use as an ingredient or topping. The Portabellas are the star part of an omelet that includes Swiss cheese. They’re also sliced for use as a burger topping.