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The Plant-Based Movement Cleans Up

Experts predict a shift toward more affordable meat replacement items that contain fewer ingredients.

No other food trend has dominated the headlines over the past year like plant-based burgers, but that doesn’t mean every brand is adding them to the menu. Suppliers making a splash with meat replacement products have had trouble meeting the demand from big brands like Burger King and Red Robin, meaning other, smaller brands have nary a chance to land a supply of brand-name plant-based burger patties. 

That’s not the only issue for operators looking to appeal to the growing number of diners that identify as flexitarians, says Jeff Wirtz, corporate chef at Blount Fine Foods. 

“Another problem is that so far, plant-based products aren’t any cheaper than ground beef, or ground pork,” Wirtz says. It’s not that Wirtz believes these complications will affect the plant-based movement to the point that it fizzles out, but he suspects what is currently hot will begin to evolve into something else. Not only will the trend start to encompass other products outside of mock burger patties, but diners will be paying more attention to what is being used to mimic meat, Wirtz says. 

“Whereas other diets are fads—I mean, when was the last time you heard something about the South Beach Diet?—I think plant-based products are here to stay,” Wirtz says. “But at the same time, I think you’re going to see the next phase of the movement, where diners are looking for more affordable products, with cleaner labels.” 

Wirtz and his team of corporate chefs recently went to work in finding a solution for operators looking to add cleaner plant-based products at a reasonable price point. What they came up with was a plant-based beef chili, using a meat replacement product made by Before the Butcher, a company that is focused on more than just burgers. 

“The reason we like Before the Butcher so much is they have the cleanest label, and it still mimics that beef taste so closely,” Wirtz says. “There are ingredients in the other competitors’ burgers and meat replacement products that are on our clients’ ‘no-no list,’ but when we showed them the list of ingredients in Before the Butcher’s products, they were in.” 

A dish like plant-based beef chili plays well in different types of eating establishments, too, whether it’s a sandwich shop or a sports bar. It’s the type of menu item that offers comfort without sacrificing on taste. With the addition of a cleaner plant-based chili, it can capture all different types of diners, says Wirtz. 

“The biggest thing to note is where we’re at right now, it’s just the tip of the iceberg,” Wirtz says. “As more improvements are made, you’re going to see more and more items not only at restaurants, but in retail, and they’ll get more affordable as time goes on.” 

By Charlie Pogacar