New Research Suggests a World of Opportunity for Foodservice Operators related to Plant-Forward Menus
What are some of the most promising ways in which operators can both react to changing needs and demands and lead consumers to more plant-centric eating patterns? What gives operators hesitation about making protein-related changes to their menus? To answer those questions and measure the state of plant-forward dining in the foodservice industry, The Culinary Institute of America partnered with Datassential to conduct a broad industry survey and uncover a wide range of views about a wide range of issues related to protein. The findings reflect responses from 1,013 consumers and 634 operators—menu decision-makers from restaurants ranging from QSR to upper casual, and from onsite operations ranging from K-12 to hospitals. The full PowerPoint deck created by Maeve Webster, senior director at Datassential, who conducted the survey and the analysis, is rich with nuanced and actionable insights.
Summary of Survey Findings
The consensus among both consumers and operators (about three fourths of each group) is that the foodservice industry must play a role in addressing broad issues related to public health and the environment. Surprisingly, though, both groups place less emphasis on the foodservice industry’s role in addressing protein production and consumption than they do on its role in addressing broad health and environment issues. This signals a disconnect, since the single most significant contribution the foodservice industry can make toward environmental sustainability is to reduce red meat on menus, as part of a larger shift toward more plant-based and healthy dishes.
Food safety is far and away the most important issue for consumers, cited by 80 percent as an area of concern. In contrast, only about half of consumers polled were concerned by the impact of animal protein production on the environment and current consumption levels of animal proteins in the U.S.Interestingly, consumers are more concerned than operators about antibiotics and steroids in animal proteins and dairy products. Webster notes: “Consumers appear more engaged in environmental and health-related issues, while operators are more concerned with business-oriented issues such as cost and consistent supply. "Operators must realize that the fact that consumers are concerned about health and environmental issues makes those business issues.
When it comes to consuming plant proteins, consumers are ahead of operators in many respects. “Operators have work to do in closing the gap between consumption and current away from home availability levels,” Webster reports. “This is particularly true for non-animal protein options such as legumes, Greek yogurt, nut butters and flours, and tofu, seitan, etc.” This is likely due to the fact that only 10 percent of operators feel that increasing plant-forward dishes would be easy, while the vast majority believe it would be difficult. On the plus side, reducing the portion size of animal protein on menus is expected by nearly half of operators to increase the healthfulness of the entrees, and by over a third to increase the culinary innovation involved with the dishes.
Perhaps one of the most significant findings is one that supports key Menus of Change principles and other case studies and analyses described in this report: “Pasta dishes, stir fries, and plant-based dishes—all of which can use meat as a condiment or supporting ingredient—have greater potential among consumers than vegetarian or vegan options.”
All of these findings are important contextual factors for understanding how operators talk about shifts to more fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts and legumes, less meat, and so on. The idea of animal protein as a garnish appeals to half of consumers, yet does not resonate at all with 28 percent of them,so it’s important for operators to focus on telling the story behind a menu item with reduced animal protein or increased produce in order to increase interest. Greater sourcing transparency appeals to 70 percent of consumers, offering a clear communication opportunity when it comes to conveying the reasoning behind a menu change. Another key strategy for doing so is through menu items that draw from world cuisines, as described in the case studies below. Using ingredients from other countries’ and regions’ cuisines is expected to make menus more interesting and unique, while allowing operators to use more plants and less animal protein. On the list of possible menu changes an operation could execute, featuring more global cuisines on menus is second in likelihood only behind requiring greater transparency from vendors; these are changes that 36 and 37 percent respectively are likely to do, and nine and five percent respectively are already doing.
The most significant menu challenges that operator are facing are fluctuating protein costs and how to make healthier items equally appealing to diners. The cost issue might become enough incentive for some operators to reduce portion sizes of animal protein, but it will be important that they be open with their diners if and when they do so.
Another key finding relates to how well operators understand diners. Webster explains: “Operators over estimate patron interest in vegetarian items but may be under-estimating interest in blends and smaller animal protein sizes, particularly if those proteins are higher quality.” This presents a tremendous opportunity, but it has to be done with proper communication. There are times and places for “stealth health” and keeping a menu change under the radar—meaning that operators must each determine what is best for them individually—but on average, the times that operators communicated a menu change to patrons were the times a change received the most positive response. This can take place through web content or directly on the menu. Some examples of these well-received changes are: featuring more world cuisines, using high- impact preparations on produce, creating mixed grill dishes, adding or replacing a meat option with a non-meat option, and using higher quality meat. The reverse is true as well, as operators reported that they typically did not communicate a reduced portion size of animal protein, or a reduced number of entrees focused on animal protein,and both of these changes were not well received. As one operator shared, “We only tell them if they ask, but this tactic is not successful.”
As far as how to communicate a menu change, such as reducing the amount of meat in a dish, operators are most likely to label a dish as a new recipe. Cited by 59 percent of operators, using language such as “topped with” or “served with” as menu descriptors is considered the most effective way of communicating dishes using meat as a condiment. By contrast, only 24 percent of operators consider it effective to either rely on servers to romance these kinds of dishes or to group all similar items under a menu header indicating that meat is not the primary ingredient in those items. Quality is especially important when it comes to any potential shift in value perception, as Webster reports: “Given quality is a key driver for consumers—and this has born out in the success of fast casual operators—leveraging quality may help to counter act ‘more for less’ value.” Consumers also view seasonal, fresh, and local as adding value.
Here are some specific communication strategies that operators are using alongside menus and recipes that feature smaller portions of animal protein and more produce, grains, and plant proteins:
• giving customers options of 5-, 6-, or 8-ounce portions of animal proteins, after first talking with their most loyal customers about their preferences (interestingly, more consumers than operators said they find it appealing to choose from a variety of protein sizes, indicating a clear opportunity)
• emphasizing the sustainability angle of a menu change rather than the health benefit
• introducing a new menu while communicating the new menu choices through table side visits from the chef and throroughly briefed staff.
One of the greater hurdles to increasing items where meat is a garnish rather than a main ingredient is convincing diners to try these dishes. Two thirds of operators agreed with the statement, “If I could just get my patrons to order plant-forward dishes, with meat in much smaller portions (1-2.5ounces), I know they would love them but it’s hard to get them to move away from traditional meat-forward items.” This suggests that samples are a marketing tactic not to be forgotten. In other words, sometimes it’s best to just let the food…speak for itself.