Long perceived as a mere side dish, vegetables have made headway in the battle for center-of-plate status. Yet even as some consumers embrace more plant-forward dining, veggies often still labor under the appearance of being less satisfying and cheaper than animal proteins. Also, just 15% of consumers follow even a semivegetarian diet1, leaving operators to decide whether it’s worth it to menu veg-centric entrees. So, how can chain operators get the most value out of plant-based meals while making sure consumers feel that way, too?
“It’s easy to come up with a vegetarian or vegan dish, but then you might only sell three a day and then everybody’s angry it’s on the menu,” says Matt McMillan, vice president of culinary and beverage innovation for upscale-casual Cooper’s Hawk Winery & Restaurants. The Orland Park, Ill.-based chain has evolved from offering one off-menu vegetarian pasta to featuring an entire specialty veggie entree section with seasonal gnocchi, a vegan ancient grain dish and roasted vegetable enchiladas— a top seller.
The key for keeping the underperformers viable, McMillan says, is cross-utilization: “We may not sell 20 red quinoa plates a day; however, every item on that vegan platter gets used elsewhere.”
Cross-utilization is also essential for vegetable-heavy fast-casual Mediterranean chain Luna Grill “to keep perishable items moving and rotating,” says co-founder and Chief Cuisine Officer Maria Pourteymour. Positioning meatless mains as multipurpose is another way to boost the value proposition. Luna’s most popular veggie dish—a sampler platter with stuffed grape leaves, hummus and Israeli couscous salad—is listed as an appetizer, since it works as both a shareable and stand-alone entree.
Combating rising costs
While taste and texture are the leading deterrents of veggie entree consumption, Technomic finds, a big challenge is the reigning misperception that veggies are cheaper. High-quality vegetables can cost as much as animal products, and they’re also time-consuming to process.
On the back end, chains such as San Diego-based Luna combat rising produce and labor costs by leaning on suppliers for better pricing. And both Cooper’s Hawk and Luna rely on time-saving equipment to dice and slice high volumes of fresh veggies, versus depending solely on manpower.
Food technology can also play a cost-savings role for operators turning to increasingly convincing, edgy meat-analog products. Harrisburg, Pa.-based Arooga’s Grille House & Sports Bar partnered with a niche manufacturer to create a mixed mushroom-based faux chicken wing. They’re served with the chain’s 25 sauces and rubs, just like chicken.
Arooga’s says it was also the first full-service restaurant in Pennsylvania to roll out a plant-based burger that “bleeds.” Priced on par with its most expensive wagyu burger ($13.99), the brand calls out in menu inserts the environmental impact of replacing a beef burger with the analog option.
“Vegetarians, vegans and people who care about the environment understand that this technology just costs more,” Arooga’s co-founder and President Gary Huether says. “What’s surprised me is how many people come in requesting it.”
1Technomic’s Center of the Plate: Seafood & Vegetarian Consumer Trend Report, powered by Ignite