Stay true to your brand when adding plant-based menu items, say operators

Three chain restaurant leaders share the secrets to their success with plant-based menu initiatives.
plant-based burgers
Plant-based burgers and other alternative proteins are now menued by 46.8% of chain restaurants. /Photograph: Shutterstock

A plant-based banh mi sandwich probably won’t fly at a rib joint. Nor will a vegan sausage patty be right for a salad concept.

That was the consensus among the three chain operators participating in the panel “Power Plant: The Future of Plant-Based” at the 2023 Restaurant Leadership Conference in Phoenix this week.

Although the percentage of vegetarians in the U.S. remains small—about 6% by most estimates—meat-eating Americans are seeking plant-based alternatives more often, with 41% consuming a vegetarian dish at least once a week, according to Restaurant Business sister company, Technomic.

And restaurants are feeding the demand, said Rich Shank, VP of innovation at Technomic and panel moderator, with 46.8% of operators offering alternative proteins on the menu.

“I don’t see why it’s not 100%,” said panelist Andre Vener, partner and co-founder of 70-location fast casual, Dog Haus. “I wouldn’t create an entire new category, but look at your menu and see where it’s possible to substitute a plant-based burger, sausages or tenders.”

RLC Power Plant Panel

Rich Shank (l.) moderates RLC's Power Plant panel with (l. to r.) Bob Gallagher of Tony Roma's, Carin Stutz of Native Foods and Andre Vener of Dog Haus. /Photo by W. Scott Mitchell

The Dog Haus menu focuses on chef-inspired versions of just those items, and Vener has offered Impossible brand meat alternatives since Day One in 2010. He also operates virtual concept Bad Ass Breakfast Burritos, where an Impossible breakfast sausage patty is a burrito filling option.

Dog Haus is gung-ho enough on plant-based substitutes, it has even developed the Impossible Shop virtual brand dedicated solely to these items.  “We had fun developing this menu, adding items like chili cheese fries in addition to burgers, sausages and burritos,” Vener said.

He stated that about 8.1% of sales at Dog Haus and its virtual brands are plant-based.

Panelist Bob Gallagher, chief culinary officer at Romacorp. Inc., was convinced that it was time to introduce plant-based options with the launch of the company’s new fast-casual brand, Tony Roma’s Bones & Burgers. A vegan burger and plant-based ice cream are now on the menu.

“The items are aimed at the Gen Z and Millennial customer, and about 10% of orders are for the vegan burgers,” said Gallagher. “We’re a meat-centric concept, and I thought it would be more like 3%, but many customers order these burgers topped with cheese, bacon or queso.”

Which supports the theory that flexitarians or meat reducers account for a majority of plant-based burger purchases. “You can’t build a brand by just relying on the small group of vegans,” said Vener.

Gallagher made sure he could get the product he wanted before he put a plant-based burger on the menu. “We wanted it to cook like a burger and have the same texture,” he said. “Plus, something with a smoke flavor to go with our brand. It fits the concept because of the barbecue flavor.”

Gallagher was also committed to making sure the burger remained untouched by animal products—an insurance policy for true vegans. “We invested in a separate grill and sourced vegan cheese and vegan mayo,” he said.

That was not an issue for 100% plant-based Native Foods, the 11-unit fast casual founded in 1994 around a compassion for animals, said CEO Carin Stutz, the third member of the panel. “Now consumers primarily visit for the first time around health, with sustainability the second reason, and alternatives to animal proteins the third.” she said. “Our guest is someone with a mindset to make a difference.”

Native Foods only recently began using commercial faux meat products, developing its menu around plant proteins such as seitan, tempeh and tofu to create craveable comfort food. Popular items include the house-made Veggrib, Cauliflower Dippers with Buffalo or Thai chili sauce and Nachos. “People want to indulge and it has to taste good,” said Stutz.

But she admits that the products are getting more indulgent and taste better, with chicken tenders that “taste like real chicken” and “cool ingredients” like pea protein and bean protein. “These labor-saving products help us save steps and Native Foods can spend more time on flavor and innovation,” said Stutz.

Native Foods is exploring plant-based seafood options, which have also expanded and improved in taste and ingredient content. Cleaner labels are also becoming more prevalent among meat alternative products.

Technomic predicts that plant-based menu penetration should remain pretty steady through 2024, said Shank. The panelists supported that claim.

Vener sees a continued demand for plant-based at Dog Haus. “It’s not going to double all of a sudden; people are not going to drastically change their eating habits, but it will remain steady,” he said.

“We should see acceleration as products improve and more competitors join the mix,” added Gallagher. “Bones & Burger will continue to innovate against that, cook with different products and find more applications.”


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