Foodservice businesses respond to shifts in consumer demand for plant-based foods


Traditionally, plant-based diets appealed mostly to vegans and vegetarians, but they are now gaining traction among a growing segment of consumers. Health and wellness, environmental concerns and animal ethics and welfare are only some of the major factors spurring the growth of plant-based diets. At a time when Canadians are re-evaluating their lifestyle and dietary choices, foodservice businesses are actively responding to these shifts in consumer demand to increase sales and position themselves as leaders in the space.

“Consumers have gained an increased awareness of where their food is coming from, which is leading to animal welfare and sustainability considerations,” says Vince Sgabellone, foodservice industry analyst, Circana (formerly NPD Group) in Toronto. “Plant-based companies have also done an outstanding marketing job to convince consumers [to eat more] plant-based foods, which fuels the trend even more. Whether it’s traditional forms of marketing or social-media marketing, it seems to be working.”

Plantiful Options
An increasing number of partnerships between restaurants (both QSR and FSR) and major food companies with plant-based products, such as Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods, Maple Leaf and Sol Cuisine, have made these options more accessible to the mass market.

“The benefit for restaurants is that now they can appeal to a whole party,” says Sgabellone. “Generally speaking, between six and 10 per cent of the population is vegan/vegetarian, according to third-party data. So, in a party of 10, it’s likely that one person doesn’t eat meat, which allows operators to appeal to a broader customer set. The challenge for the operator, however, is now they’re appealing to a very small part of the population. Are they going to have a menu just for that one person, or create some vegan/vegetarian options that anyone can enjoy?”

In January 2021, Pizza Nova introduced Field Roast’s Plant-Based Pepperoni at all of its locations, marking the first time the product, produced by Greenleaf Foods, was available to consumers anywhere. It was also the first pepperoni alternative made with pea protein instead of soy. Crafted with whole pieces of fennel, cracked black pepper, garlic and paprika, the plant-based pepperoni became a permanent menu item and is available as part of six plant-based creations, including the Planteroni, Vita Plant, Aloha Plant, Campo Plant, Gusto Plant and Piccante Plant. That same year, Pizza Nova introduced its Plantollini Chick’n Bites, which are GMO free, vegan and contain no artificial flavours.

“We first launched our plant based Plant-eroni in 2021 and the response has been overwhelmingly positive and constant. In fact, nothing demonstrates its success more than our expansion of plant-based options. Since then, we’ve introduced our Plantollini Chick’n Bites to all Pizza Nova locations,” says Domenic Primucci, president of Pizza Nova. “Our customers appreciate having quality menu options so that every person, regardless of their tastes or diet, can find what they are looking for.”

More recently, Mary Brown’s Chicken partnered with Lightlife to offer plant-based Tenders and Sidekick Snack Sandwiches in two flavour profiles at stores across Canada. 7-Eleven Canada also introduced its first-to-market Lightlife Plant-based Chick’n Tenders in more than 600 locations across the country. Lastly, Booster Juice created two new sandwiches featuring Field Roast Italian Garlic & Fennel Plant-Based Sausage — the Italian Crumble Plant-Nini and the Italian Crumble Plant Wrap – topped with mixed peppers, onions, spinach and pesto.

In addition to these fast-food chain collaborations, more adventurous eateries have entered the market with 100-per-cent plant-based menus.

In summer 2019, Rita Haddid, and her daughter Alexia, opened their family-run vegan restaurant in Mississauga, Ont. called Nourishmoi. Heavily influenced by Middle-Eastern cuisine, Nourishmoi’s menu consists of healthy vegan dishes made without refined sugar or sodium. Nothing is deep fried and everything on the menu can also be made gluten free.

In October 2022, Happy Belly Food Group Inc. acquired Lettuce Love Café, located in Burlington, Ont. The 100-per-cent vegan and gluten-free restaurant uses sustainable, non-GMO and fair-trade ingredients. A few months ago, the group signed an area-development agreement in Ontario for the opening of 20 franchised Lettuce Love Café restaurants.

“Plant-based eating has become more popular in suburban markets,” says Sean Black, Chief Investment Officer of Happy Belly Food Group Inc. “Our franchising model for Lettuce Love Café will allow us to [reduce our footprint] and tap into markets where there’s demand for plant-based eating, such as Mississauga, Oakville and Bolton, Ont. We want Lettuce Love Café to be approachable and affordable, and we’re working toward making it the go-to plant-based restaurant in a community.”

Categorized as a fast-causal concept, Lettuce Love Café occupies between 1,000 and 1,800 sq. ft. and can accommodate up to 40 diners. More than 50 per cent of the business can be represented through delivery and takeout, says Black.

In fact, the former owner of Lettuce Love Café, Neven Madzarac, is now serving as senior Operations manager of Happy Belly Food Group Inc. With more than 30 years of foodservice experience in area management, sales and distribution roles, Madzarac purchased the restaurant in early 2017 with his partner at the time.

Madzarac recently re-introduced fish back into his diet, but was fully vegan for roughly six years. He kept Lettuce Love Café’s core menu, but introduced the Big Veg — a spin-off of the Big Mac. Currently, the most popular menu item is the Power Bowl, which is “a great combination of quinoa, braised kale, marinated Portobello mushrooms, black beans and an amazing lemon-tahini sauce,” he says. Going forward, Madzarac wants to introduce wraps as a new hand-held item and continue to evolve the brunch menu with soups and yogurt parfaits, for example.

“We’re so excited about the opportunity to grow Lettuce Love Café into what I envisioned originally when I bought the business back in 2017,” says Madzarac. “We can do some great work for this brand and introduce [customers] to new flavours and items they’ve never tried before.”

Currently, the group is discussing three LOIs and anticipates the next opening will be in Q3 or Q4 of this year. Black is optimistic this will be the first of several area-development agreements across Canada and hopes to make Lettuce Love Café a national brand over the next 12 to 24 months.

Previously, Happy Belly Food Group Inc. owned Fresh Kitchen + Juice Bar, Toronto’s original vegan restaurant, which Black considers to be the leader in full-service plant-based dining in Canada, but sold the business to Recipe Unlimited in 2021.

As one of the frontrunners in plant-based lifestyles, vegan restaurants have popped up across Canada, such as Vancouver’s Hierloom, Calgary’s Saveg Cafe and Quebec’s LOV.

“Full-service restaurant operators are still rationalizing their menus in this post-COVID era,” says Sgabellone. “If something isn’t selling quickly and making a good profit margin for an operator, it’s probably coming off the menu. The pandemic prompted fragmentation in the foodservice landscape, so operators can’t be everything to everyone all the time. They need to pick their lane and stay in it.”

Supply-Chain Strategy
Arguably, plant-based meat alternatives have started to lose their lustre, creating a movement away from highly processed foods and toward a whole-food, plant-based diet. This includes not only fruits and vegetables, but also nuts, grains, legumes and seeds.

“We’re going to continue seeing evolution in the space,” says Sgabellone. “When we think of the giant splash plant-based meats made three or four years, there was high trial. Everyone was excited to try something new. Then, people started to investigate and ask more questions once they realized plant-based meats are still highly processed, creating a trend back to [fruits, vegetables and other proteins.]”

Last year, Maple Leaf adjusted its plant-based meat investment to align with a drop-off in sales. Conversely, Lactalis Canada unveiled plans to convert its Sudbury, Ont. facility into a plant-based production hub to complement its current plant-based product lineup, including Sensational Soy, Lactantia margarine and Siggi’s coconut-based yogurt alternative.

Moving forward, an ongoing debate over the trajectory of the plant-based meat market, especially in North America, is expected.


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