Plant-based philosophies, vegetable-forward menus and wholly vegan concepts are becoming a restaurant genre of their own. While numbers are purely estimates, at least 5% of Americans are vegetarians and 2% are vegan. And if web searches and product launches serve as a qualifying indicator, you’ll find that queries for vegan are up fourfold in the last decade and vegan launches are up nearly 300% in the last 5 years. Add in 22-million consumers following a vegetarian-inclined diet, and the 46% of consumers trying to eat more vegetables.
The movement toward eating to feel better has been prominent in recent years. While some buzz has been replaced with the next new fad in the functional food category, the consumer nod toward better, beneficial foods is one to watch. From plant-based burgers, nut-based cheeses and the rise of vegetable-focused restaurants, a new phase of education and exploration is upon us. With a consumer culture that seeks food education through experience, the opportunities are bountiful. Manhattan’s Michelin-starred meat-free restaurant, Nix, proves that taking a day off from eating meat is not only acceptable, but worthy. Winding lines at vegan food festivals offers a glimpse into the attractiveness of the lifestyle. And a walk through any dairy case proves that the options are not only plentiful, but incredibly approachable.
The trend is modern, focusing on wholesome ingredients, sustainable consciousness and creative interpretations of ingredients that are anything but alternatives. Seasonality becomes more pronounced as traditional proteins are moved to a supporting role. This meets consumers where they are as red meat consumption continues to fall and interest in meatless meals continues to rise. According to Mintel, the drivers for limiting meat consumption include heart health, weight loss, and saving money.
“I try to eat at least one meatless meal per week, but I’m interested in adding in more days each week. I don’t really miss the meat, but need options.”
A New Restaurant Category
“I’m trying to eat more vegetables and am looking for new ways to enjoy them. When I’m eating out, I’m open to vegetarian options, as long as it tastes good.”
Bad Hunter, Chicago, is proving that a vegetable-forward menu can appeal to all consumers, even those that prefer animal protein. Although all menu items are vegetarian, their guests can order a grilled protein kabob to top their meal. Another Chicago spot, Clever Rabbit, devotes over half of the menu to vegetables with Vegetarian, Gluten-Free, Vegan and Dairy-Free options.
Other chefs have shared a similar view of the challenge and the inspiration that moving toward a plant-based menu philosophy can offer. At Erven in Santa Monica, Chef Nick Erven serves fried seaweed chips with a yuzu-spiked guacamole. Beyond Sushi, NYC, offers a sustainable approach to sushi where Chef Guy Vaknin substitutes vegetables for fish and various grains for rice. Meatless or not, the creativity and flavor-forward combinations are right on trend.
Vicia, St. Louis, offers snacks, starters and main dishes, changing frequently with emphasis on seasonal ingredients. The menu, eloquently described by Ian Froeb of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, is “not meatless, but with the vegetables elevated to equal status with the proteins.” There you can dine on kohlrabi tacos, where kohlrabi is sliced thinly and used as the shell, or choose a salami-cheddar sandwich with a rhubarb mustard.
Today’s vegetable-forward menu options are inspirational and creative. And although flavors applied to meatless items tend to be lighter, start with a quality real and recognizable flavor and menu description to draw trial and win the return business.