Plant-based dishes no longer are limited to vegetarian menus or marketed solely to vegan customers. Veg-forward eating has become a mainstream trend, and both operators and suppliers are responding with new menu items and products. Right now, the burger category is seeing a lot of action. These three chains are exploring different plant-based burger solutions that work with their menus—and have the potential to spur sales.
1. Building it better
Houlihan’s longtime veggie burger—a housemade blend of black beans, brown rice, garlic, jalapenos and nine other ingredients—is a menu staple, says Michael Slavin, VP of culinary and menu innovation for the casual-dining chain. But customer feedback indicated that guests were looking for a greater variety of healthy, sustainable plant-based options. In January, Houlihan’s tested the Impossible Burger in two restaurants, rolling it out systemwide in May.
“Three years ago, there wasn’t a plant-based burger that met our specs, but quality finally delivered on the hype,” says Slavin, referring to the meat analog products now in use and available commercially. “Consumers want a burger that eats like meat, with texture, color, flavor and satiety that mimics beef.”
Nevertheless, Slavin wanted to menu the best possible version before launching the burger chainwide—a requirement that took several tweaks, especially with cooking technique. “We went from cooking it on a flattop to cooking it individually, to order, in a saute pan. This gives the burger a nice sear and crust and better retains its flavor and juiciness,” he says. The cooked patty is served on a brioche bun with optional cheddar cheese, Houlihan’s secret sauce, lettuce and tomato. It’s priced from $11.50 to $12.49.
So far, sales have exceeded projections, Slavin adds. “The Impossible Burger is selling two to three times as much as the veggie burger and is not cannibalizing sales of the regular beef burger.” The burger’s parent company is helping build buzz. “Impossible Foods does a good job marketing to its fan base,” says Slavin.
2. Fitting into fast casual
Like Houlihan’s, Luna Grill was waiting for a “meaty” plant-based burger that met its standards before adding one to its menu, which has a healthy, Mediterranean focus. “We’ve had many requests from vegetarian fans for higher-protein offerings that were plant-based,” says Luna Grill co-founder Maria Pourteymour. “We wanted to add a burger, but the flavor, quality, nutritional profile and ingredient list had to match up with our brand.” In April, the fast casual introduced the Beyond Burger to its 45 locations.
“We previously offered a veggie burger made with soy protein isolate, but we didn’t care for that ingredient,” she says. “This burger has a cleaner label, high protein content and healthy fats.” Luna Grill serves it on a brioche bun with grilled onions, spicy feta, lettuce and tomato for $10.75. As with Houlihan’s, training on cooking technique and the burger’s nutritional profile were essential prior to the launch.
The new burger has been well-received, outperforming the chain’s grass-fed beef burger by 4.6% in sales, says Pourteymour. “Many people don’t even realize it’s plant-based, and the burger has become the fourth-best-seller in its category,” she says. The chain offers other plant-forward choices, too, including a popular falafel wrap.
3. From vegetarian to vegan
Mooyah Burgers, Fries & Shakes launched a black bean-based veggie burger 10 years ago, says Natalie Anderson-Liu, the chain’s VP of Brand. “Guests love it, but it’s not vegan-friendly. It contains egg,” she says.
With tastes and dietary preferences evolving, enough customers are now asking for a purely vegan burger. To meet the demand, Mooyah is currently conducting product tests of new patties, says Anderson-Liu. But “fake meat” burgers are not in the running. Mooyah’s signature is its 100% Certified Angus Beef burger, “and we don’t want to cannibalize it,” she says. Instead, the team is looking at bean-based vegan burgers with a flavor profile similar to the one currently on the menu. “We want to find a world-class veggie burger that fits into our brand in terms of cost, consistency and speed to market,” Anderson-Liu adds.
Finding the right product is just the first step—training has to follow, she says. Most importantly, vegan patties can’t share the same grill space with beef, turkey or even vegetarian burgers. “We’re very conscientious about not mixing ingredients,” she says. And to keep from stocking too many SKUs, Mooyah may take the current veggie burger off the menu if the new vegan version is close in flavor and texture.