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The Menu Economics of Plant-Forward Dining

Mon, February 27, 2017

MOC Blog-Carrots2.jpgNow that more and more chefs and foodservice leaders are recognizing the consumer demand for shifting to more plant-forward menus, and the health and environmental imperatives for doing so, one of the million-dollar questions is: How do you change the value proposition for consumers? How do you make customers feel they have gotten their money’s worth if the meal happens to be meatless, or includes a significantly reduced portion of meat?

In typical menu hierarchies, you find that many of the most delicious (and hot) vegetable dishes are relegated to the “sides” list. Usually in small font toward the bottom, or some other hard-to-find part of the menu, these co-stars are often offered with more humble menu descriptions than their entrée stars, and usually at single digit prices that are half the price of even salads and appetizers, and about a quarter of the price of most of the entrées. You know the ones: roasted Brussels sprouts with sea salt, perhaps, or sautéed broccolini with garlic. But at AL’s Place in San Francisco, the roles are reversed. The meat is listed under “Sides,” signaling that the real value in the dining experience will come in choosing one of the vegetable-centric mains, which are either vegetarian or leverage animal protein as a condiment. Michael Bauer, restaurant critic and executive food and wine editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, remarked in his review of AL’s Place that, “meat is used with restraint.” He went on: “Even on the regular menu . . . meat or fish are accents. Rainbow trout chile verde ($16) is dominated by mild peppers with a scattering of minced seafood on top. On one visit, the only other dish with eyes, if you don’t count potatoes, was lightly cured trout ($16) with the thin slices draped over three mounds of crispy potatoes arranged around a sudachi, or citrus, mousse.”

One of the hurdles in elevating the status of plant-forward dishes is overcoming the perception among many diners that meatless dishes should cost much less than those that contain meat. J. Kenji López-Alt, who is managing culinary director at Serious Eats, penned an article last year titled, “Why Is My Vegan Entrée as Expensive as the Meat?” He explained that vegetables as raw ingredients can cost as much as animal products if using high-quality or specialty ingredients, say for an especially flavorful and in-season heirloom carrot or tomato. Which suggests that menu messaging around quality and freshness may play a role in shifting diner understanding of restaurant pricing.

Another critical factor in menu economics is labor costs. As a general rule, vegetables require more prep time: cleaning, peeling, chopping, and so forth. To make a vegetarian dish exciting, you’d want to combine multiple types of vegetables, perhaps even prepared in different ways, in order to build layers of flavor. A roasted chicken, by contrast, requires simple prep and just tossing it in the oven for awhile. Or think of burger patties: While most people expect the “veggie burger” on a menu to cost less, but that’s not the reality. López-Alt noted: “A homemade beef burger is as simple as grinding beef and forming it into patties before cooking it. A good vegan burger requires multiple steps: cooking grains, sautéing vegetables, mashing beans, et cetera, and that doesn't factor in recipe development.” For the meat dishes that require more work, they’ll garner a higher price without customers flinching.

So while it’s not about actual value, it’s perceived value that will make the difference between happy customers or not. That’s where influential chefs play an invaluable role in shifting consumer attitudes, from Dan Barber and John Fraser in New York to Aaron London in San Francisco and every state in between: Heralding the news that old perceptions of vegetable-based cooking as bland and boring no longer apply.

Chefs like Aaron Adams in Portland are helping elevate the status of not only plant-forward food choices but the dining experience of vegan food. Adams is the chef/owner of Farm Spirit in Portland, Oregon, a 14-seat fine-dining restaurant that opened in the summer of 2015 to much acclaim. What’s most remarkable isn’t the depth of flavor he’s able to deliver to meat-loving guests through fermentation, or how seriously he takes his local sourcing, forgoing the vegan standby of cashew cream in favor of hazelnuts, given their abundance in the Pacific Northwest. It’s the savings he reaps on his restaurant’s food costs. All while strictly sourcing from nearby farms and farmers markets, he has kept food costs to an average of only 16.5 percent, which typically range from about 25 percent to at least 30 percent in full-service restaurants. Farm Spirit offers a $60 to $80 prix fixe menu, and they are able to precisely predict revenue by requiring guests to make reservations and purchase tickets in advance of their seating.

Adams is part of a growing band of restaurants cropping up with vegan menus that just don’t, you know, shout their vegan-ness. “I have had some pretty terrible vegan meals, with fake meat, so we like to present the restaurant as more vegetable-forward, rather than freak people out by calling things vegan,” Adams told FSR Magazine in December. “I’m not going to scare people or yell at people for eating meat. I just try to help our guests experience other ways to eat using completely local and seasonal produce.”

Food and labor costs are critical obstacles to overcome for plant-forward concepts in the fast casual sector as well. At the so-called “farm-to-counter” fast casual chain, Dig Inn, whose bowls go for about $8 to $13, they have a number of steps in place to keep costs down. For instance, they have a 12,000-square-foot supply center in the Bronx that enables them to handle product delivery and vegetable prep offsite rather than use their expensive and space-constrained Manhattan stores for those elements of the operation. They also recently purchased their own farm. Located two hours north of New York City, it will supply produce to their 12 restaurants, and provide cost savings by cutting out third parties. Serving ingredients that are so fresh, seasonal, and as a result, delicious, will also, in turn, make customers more excited about vegetable-centric eating overall, bringing them back to the restaurant on a regular basis.

Considering that Dig Inn is among the fastest growing chains in America, and that AL’s Place was named Bon Appetit’s top restaurant of 2015, it’s clear that pioneering restaurateurs are figuring out how to make the menu economics work for plant-forward dining. They’re keeping costs, and skepticism, down—all, of course, while keeping flavor up.

This article was originally published on Forbes.com on the Business #WineAndDine pages.

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