Consumers today are more health and socially conscious than ever before, and this is impacting the way they eat. The National Restaurant Association’s 2017 “State of the Industry” report states that 70 percent of consumers’ restaurant choices are influenced by the availability of healthy menu items. Additionally, millennial and Gen X diners are more likely than their older counterparts to decide where to eat based on the availability of “healthy, locally sourced, and environmentally-friendly foods.”
For restaurants, attracting this new breed of hyper-aware consumer is critical to ensuring a brand’s success. Though definitions of what constitutes a “healthy” or “ethical” food choice may change from diner to diner, it is clear that restaurants must make the effort to define these concepts and offer solutions for these customers.
One strategy that appeals to a broad range of customers on both the health and environmentally friendly fronts is to offer more plant-based foods. Not only do fruits and vegetables offer health benefits, but they appeal to vegan, vegetarian, and flexitarian diners, as well as meat eaters. Additionally, with a smaller environmental footprint than meats, consumers and the restaurants that serve them can feel good about the sustainability of the plant-based dishes
It’s no wonder that Baum + Whiteman, an international food and restaurant consulting firm, listed “plant-based foods” as the 2018 trend of the year.
“Health trends have been growing for years, as well as well as sustainability,” says Jeff Wirtz, senior director of culinary development at Blount Fine Foods. “Plant-based foods really capture both of those trends, while also offering even people who traditionally eat meat hearty meals that satisfy.”
Yet this switch to more plant-forward dishes requires a mindset shift for chefs, who are generally used to using meat as the center of the plate, Wirtz says. “This may mean taking ingredients that are a little foreign to them, like tempeh, and figuring out how to these types of foods center of the plate in at least one or two dishes.”
Some chefs may also be reluctant to embrace plant-forward cuisine because they feel they have to overcome negative consumer perception that ingredients like tofu and seitan are flavorful and boring. Though this fear may be warranted since many consumers have tried preparations of these dishes that have been unappealing in the past, diners are more ready to retry plant-based dining than some might think. And with today’s bold flavor preferences, chefs have the latitude to turn these ingredients into exciting menu offerings.
Additionally, in today’s market, chefs have more plant-based options than ever before. Legumes, for example, may traditionally serve in a side dish, but today’s diners now embrace creative uses of them as entrees, Wirtz says. Many vendors are now also offering other flavorful plant-based options to give chefs more choices, like replacements for ground beef crumbles and burgers. And with more companies manufacturing these items, not only can chefs look forward to saved time on preparation, but prices have come down, making them more affordable for kitchen budgets.
“Chefs don’t just have to use flavorless tofu anymore,” Wirtz says. “Plant-based options are now being designed with cool spice blends that can tie these dishes to other food trends, such as ras el hanout to match the global food trend.”
Trendy dishes, like Blount’s Moroccan Lentils and Chickpeas or Rueben Cucumber Black Bean Hash can be served as a side or garnish, but with such strong flavor profiles and hearty preparations, they can also stand alone. And because these types of dishes already have such strong taste, chefs don’t have to add a lot of sodium to balance the flavor, making them even more healthy. Additionally, restaurants can use these same items as bases for meat dishes and add some grilled chicken cubes for a satisfying meal that appeals to all diners.
“My advice is to just to embrace the trend,” Wirtz says. “You can now get those bold flavors, so it’s a great way to be creative and offer something new and exciting.”