New Consumer Insights Survey Reveals Rich Opportunities for Plant-Forward Menu Innovation

Thu, February 08, 2018

... and More to Come at the 2018 Menus of Change Leadership Summit

Last month, at the 14th Annual Worlds of Healthy Flavors Leadership Retreat—which, like Menus of Change is presented in partnership by the CIA and Harvard Chan School, and was held at the CIA’s new Copia campus in Napa Valley—Datassential revealed striking findings about the landscape of opportunity facing the foodservice industry around healthier, more sustainable, plant-forward menu options. Datassential’s presentation was Phase 1 of a two-phase research endeavor into plant-forward consumer insights, conducted in consultation with the CIA and Changing Tastes.

In this month’s blog post, we sat down with Datassential’s Marie Molde—a member of the Menus of Change Sustainable Business Leadership Council, who will be speaking at the 2018 summit along with her colleague Jacki Li, Builder at Datassential —to capture the survey’s top takeaways, and to offer something of an appetizer for what Menus of Change conference attendees can expect to learn in June.

5 Questions with Marie Molde, RD, Account Manager for Client Solutions at Datassential

Question # 1. What was the goal of this latest consumer insights survey—what did you hope to help foodservice operators understand?

A. We hoped to uncover opportunities for plant-based and plant-forward eating, white space for operators, and where the best points of entry might be. We wanted to provide guidance on how operators can start developing plant-forward menu offerings while maintaining the value proposition, flavor, and appeal.

Question #2. What would you say are this survey’s top three takeaways for operators?

A. First, most consumers want to increase consumption of plant proteins and decrease red meat. We learned that consumers are not interested in eliminating meat from their diets; rather, they are looking to reduce red meat. We see the biggest dietary shift in meat eaters wanting to move toward Flexitarian [eating patterns], and we know intrinsically that’s not eliminating but limiting meat.

Consumers are looking to increase plant-based foods across all key meal parts. So there’s a real opportunity for operators to capture that interest: Meals, not snacks, are where consumers are most interested in increasing plant-based foods, revealing white space for plant-forward menu development since meals are primary occasions when consumers go out to eat.

Building on this, we learned that consumers are even more interested in smaller portions of meat if operators can communicate an added value. This could be with a flavor play, but also by leveraging premium attributes that speak to higher quality— grass-fed, antibiotic-free, or local—these buzzwords around sustainability and animal welfare that help communicate the value that plant-forward dishes offer even though there’s not as large a quantity of meat. Through Datassential’s SCORES concept testing program we asked consumers how much grilled beef they’d prefer in a beef and lentil mixed dish [shown below]—one, two, three, or four ounces—and the preferred amount overall was two ounces of beef, especially by younger generations. This is in large part because the beef is accompanied by plant protein, and we communicated that two ounces of beef coupled with half a cup of lentils in this dish offered 24 grams (about half a day’s worth) of total protein, and that resonated with consumers.

This leads to the third major finding, which is that additional messaging may be required by operators to communicate the value of plant-forward menu items, such as pointing out the satiating attributes of plant-based proteins, or the premium attributes of higher quality meat—ways of speaking to consumers’ immediate needs or concerns about plant-forward meals, which are that they’re going to be hungry later, that plant-forward meals don’t have enough protein, or that they won’t taste good. Starbucks, for instance, sometimes calls out the amount of protein in their menu items, and plant-based burgers like the Beyond Meat burger at T.G.I. Friday’s list the grams of plant protein offered by the burgers in the menu description. The messaging is really important.

Question #3. According to your survey results, what is the single greatest challenge facing operators with respect to advancing plant-forward menus?

A. When asked about plant protein, consumers’ top concern is that it’s not going to taste good. Consumers overall don’t yet completely trust the taste of plant-based proteins. So, providing a plant-based alternative that can match up to its original counterpart in taste will be the greatest hurdle. If the original dish is inherently plant-forward, more of a mixed dish, the challenge is different because if we’re only reducing the quantity of animal protein, we mostly need to convey that we’re retaining the value, not just taking away but adding back, such as by supplementing with unique preparations of vegetables, grains, or pulses.

Question #4. What would you say is the biggest opportunity suggested by the data?

A. Consumers are interested in eating more plant-based and plant-forward meals and they’re pretty clear about what that looks like if we’re up to the challenge.The key opportunity for the operator community is to continue innovating around plant-forward, and keep serving meals with smaller portions of humane and sustainable meats that are just as craveable as other alternatives in part because of the plant-based ingredients we choose. And in particular, the menu part that is most ripe for innovation is entrees. (We saw that breakfast, lunch, and dinner are the biggest target areas for increasing plant-based protein.)

We also learned that consumers are interested in plant-based eating in a holistic way, meaning they want plant-based foods in all forms, including whole forms—like seeds, nuts, produce, pulses, and whole grains—as well as plant-based analogs.

For the latter, people want plant-based burgers more so than any other application. And depending on the population, they’ll pay a premium too So, burgers are where plant-based innovation might start.

Question # 5. For Phase 2 of this plant-forward consumer insights work, what can culinary professionals and foodservice leaders attending the Menus of Change summit expect to hear in June?

A. We want to continue to probe on the notion of plant-forward, to further understand how operators can best communicate plant-forward options to your customers—is “plant-forward” the right term, or is it something else? As an industry, we have a lot of terms and jargon, so we want to better understand what makes sense to consumers: terminology, attributes, and really put ourselves more in the consumer mindset. What is the language I would be using to choose a restaurant or navigate menus in various foodservice settings? As part of a conversation we had awhile back with the CIA, we found it really helpful to think about the question: “If I’m a consumer looking for plant-forward options, what would I want my Yelp or my OpenTable filter, or Instagram hashtag to be?” So in June, Jack is really looking forward to sharing more about the messaging and other approaches that can make plant-forward menu options more impactful.