Preference for Plants: Trends in Plant-Based Dining

Photo by Pauline Yu

Examining menu offerings across the country, it’s clear that plant-forward offerings have made their mark on the foodservice industry. And this is likely to continue, as demand for plant-based dining options is fuelled by a wider range of consumers than merely those who prescribe to a vegetarian or vegan diet.

“The beauty of plant-based diets is they’re applicable to vegans, vegetarians and flexitarians. So, all across those types of diets, we can implement plant-based alternatives,” explains Juriaan Snellen, McCormick Canada’s executive corporate chef. “What we’re seeing, especially in foodservice, is the industry is [shifting] more and more to plant-centric dishes to really tap into that growing segment of flexitarians, vegetarians and vegans. And, out of those three types of diets, we’re actually seeing the largest growth in flexitarians — people [largely] motivated by health and sustainability to
[gravitate] towards a plant-based diet.”

That said, data from U.K.-based market-research firm Technavio indicates an expanding global vegan population base will also be a key driver for plant-based protein products in the future, with the market poised to grow by US$5.67 billion between 2019 and 2023.

And, beyond alternatives for traditional centre-of-the-plate proteins, the plant-based dairy category is expected to diversify as consumer interest grows. According to a report on Top 10 Trends for 2020, from Innova Market Insights, about 32 per cent of surveyed consumers said they bought dairy alternatives because they’re perceived as healthier and 27-per-cent said they choose them to add variety to their diet.

Toronto-based chef Ryan Lister of Oliver & Bonacini Hospitality’s (O&B) restaurant Liberty Commons, has observed this trend, noting an increasing number of diners are avoiding dairy products due to allergies and dietary preferences.
Within the last year, there’s been a significant adoption of plant-based-protein offerings across the quick-service restaurant (QSR) market in North America. In Canada, both KFC and A&W began testing plant-based chicken products from Lightlife in fall 2019. And, McDonalds and Wendy’s tested plant-based burgers in Canada in fall 2019, with Wendy’s releasing its Plantiful burger nationwide early this year. While McDonald’s P.L.T. (Plant. Lettuce. Tomato.) features a Beyond-Meat patty, Wendy’s formulated a recipe in-house for its patty made with pea-based protein — a process Snellen notes McCormick played a role in.

“Quick-serve has really adopted what we refer to as ‘first-generation’ plant-based meat alternatives — burgers, nuggets, hotdogs and ground beef, mostly created with textured soy or pea protein,” says Snellen. “Pretty much everyone in the industry now has a plant-based offering. A&W was one of the first ones out there and everybody else kind of followed suit.”

However, it’s worth noting these products don’t resonate with all customer bases. And, as Tim Hortons’ Beyond-Meat offerings illustrated, plant-based items do not a guarantee success — regardless of partnerships with major players in the space. The chain completely removed its Beyond-Meat products from menus across Canada in late January because, as a spokesperson for the brand explained, the offerings were not embraced by customers the way it had expected.

The brand had launched burgers and breakfast sandwiches with Beyond Meat plant-based patties during summer 2019 and the items were later cut from menus outside of Ontario and B.C. in September, before being discontinued completely.

“[Casual-dining restaurants] are starting to elevate the first-generation plant-based proteins — they’re expanding it into tacos, burritos, stir fries,” says Snellen. “We’re [also] starting to see some plant-based seafood and fish options,” he adds, noting this is mainly driven by sushi restaurants.

While burgers have been the main point of entry for QSRs, as well as casual chains such as Kelsey’s and Dave & Buster’s, partnerships with meat-alternative producers are certainly not the only approach being taken.

And, as the market evolves and matures, Snellen expects there will be a greater focus on less-processed offerings. “The first phase (right now) is the introduction of plant based and the second phase of that is offering plant-based alternatives that are less processed…It’s cleaner ingredients that consumers are familiar with — it’s more real, more approachable,” he explains. “What we’re going to see afterwards is plant-based offerings made with real food. And then we’re going to focus in on the functional claims that can be made, so a heavy focus on protein counts, the incorporation of good fats, organic, cultured, high fibre.”

He notes that, in the fine-dining segment, plant-based offerings largely focus on whole ingredients already. “The biggest difference is the fine-dining sector is really using whole, real vegetable ingredients, but they’re being prepared in a way that a meat protein normally would,” he explains, pointing to cauliflower steaks, smoked-watermelon ham and jackfruit to replicate pulled meats as prime examples. “That’s ultimately what we’re going to see across the board.”

At Liberty Commons, Lister is dedicated to using fresh, local ingredients to create plant-based offerings. This approach has involved “working with a lot more vegetables, lentils, rice, barley and grains.”

As Lister explains, the brewpub concept is “a very meat-forward restaurant,” but trends toward healthy, sustainable and plant-based eating make it important to incorporate plant-forward options. “About one third of the restaurant’s menu is vegetarian or vegan,” he explains. “We have appetizers that are completely vegetarian or vegan, we have a whole salad section that’s completely vegetarian/vegan and we also have vegetarian main courses mixed in with our regular main-course dishes.”

And, while it’s common to call-out or mark vegetarian and vegan offerings on menus, Liberty Commons has opted not to go that route. “We don’t want it to seem like it’s almost a hassle or anything, cooking like this for
people,” Lister explains. “We like it to be a part of our [main] menu because, even if you’re a meat eater, hopefully you’ll get enticed by how delicious [a dish] sounds.”

While it’s been restricted to offering takeout and delivery, Liberty Commons has been offering a reduced menu. Current vegetarian/vegan offerings include two salads — a Caesar salad and a Raw Vegetable Salad with ginger dressing ($11/half salad for $6) — as well as a Black Bean Burger featuring a black bean, quinoa and sweet potato patty, guacamole, tomato and Sweet & Smoky Aioli ($14); and Vegetarian Mushroom Mac & Cheese with aged cheddar, roasted mushrooms and rarebit cheese sauce ($14).

However, Lister says the restaurant’s most popular plant-based dish is “a barbecued sweet-potato salad” with peanuts, candied peanuts, slow-roasted sweet potato and endive, finished with honey and fresh herds.

Looking ahead, Snellen foresees continued growth and evolution within plant-based dining. “We’ll continue to see [expansion] into desserts, pizza, side dishes, ready meals or even meal kits,” he says. “The important thing is that we need to deliver [these offerings] without sacrificing on taste, indulgence or enjoyment. That’s key, especially since the majority of plant-based items are being consumed by flexitarians. Their focus is on health and sustainability, but they’re not willing to forego taste indulgence or enjoyment.”

Pizza chains, including Pizza Pizza, have already expanded their offerings to accommodate a range of dietary preferences with plant-based offerings. Last June, Pizza Pizza introduced plant-based pepperoni from Yves Veggie Cuisine and plant-based chorizo crumble from Field Roast Grain Meat Co. to its menu. The chain also offers vegan cheese produced by Violife.

Also impacting this market is the growing significance of takeout and delivery sales in restaurants —especially of late — making it top-of-mind for many to ensure menus are designed to travel well.

“The challenge with plant based, where we are today, is that if you compare it to the meat [equivalent], it has a lower fat content, which makes it dry out faster,” says Snellen. “It’s something we’ll have to continue to work on, to make sure that plant-based meat alternatives have the same shelf life as a normal meat or protein [item].”

“All chefs are going to have to start to re-evaluate their menus and come up with dishes that do travel well,” agrees Lister. “We’re all going to be trying to create vegetarian/plant-based dishes that travel well…There’s nothing worse than getting a bunch of vegetables that, by the time they’ve been in a hot box with a bit of humidity, [have] no
texture to them anymore.”

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