The Rise of the Vegetarian Menu

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If your idea of a modern vegetarian menu option is a creamy pasta primavera or some asparagus risotto, read on.

In fact, if you’re even thinking in terms of “a vegetarian menu option,” keep reading, because menus don’t look like that anymore. Canadian foodservice providers that have committed to providing alternative menu options for vegetarians, vegans and those with other dietary preferences have changed the way we look at restaurant menus, infusing elements of customization, bold flavour profiles and sustainable-meat alternatives, resulting in a balanced menu that appeals to anyone.

According to Nourish Food Marketing’s 2019 Food Industry Trend Report, blended diets based on ethics and sustainability are on the rise, while sticking to one label (vegan, vegetarian, et cetera) is on the decline. Those who enjoy meat and animal products are looking more to ethical options, such as grass-fed beef, free-range chicken and, increasingly, “Certified-Humane” animal proteins. Those who restrict some or all animal proteins in their diets are choosing more specific labels, such as “pro-animal welfare.”

Jo-Ann McArthur, president of Toronto-based Nourish Food Marketing and the International Food Marketing Alliance, says the evolution of Canadian vegetarian cuisine was largely driven, at first, by chefs themselves.

“Chefs led the way by getting excited about working with vegetables again,” she explains. “The latest wave of chefs don’t see vegetables as just a side dish — they’re being incorporated in really interesting ways.”

This vegetable-forward way of thinking not only celebrates our local Canadian bounty — it appeals to those who believe too much soy-based meat replacement is just as bad for the environment as mass-farmed beef.

“We’re now moving away from what I call the ‘vegetarian ghetto,’ where the vegetarian options are over on one side of the menu and the meat is on the other,” McArthur continues. “Now, it’s integrated and the labels are changing. It’s no longer about [being]vegetarian; it’s about being plant-based forward and it’s about healthy eating.”

With recent plant-based additions to quick-service restaurants such as A&W Canada, which introduced its Beyond Meat burger in 2018 to great acclaim and has now launched the Beyond Meat Sausage and Egger breakfast sandwich (prices vary by location), we see evidence of this integration.

“What’s really interesting about what A&W did is they celebrated the Beyond Meat Burger in the same way as they would any other new menu addition,” she says. “This isn’t about eating virtuously — you’re not giving anything up; you’re still enjoying your hamburger and fries. Today, consumers want to eat differently for a number of reasons.”

At the end of the day, McArthur stresses, by providing these integrated menu items that are suitable for vegetarians, it’s better for your bottom line. “You’re going to make more people happy, but you’re also going to profit from it,” she states.

There are many reasons why more consumers identify with a vegetarian-based diet. According to McArthur, baby boomers are more likely to adhere to a plant-based diet for health reasons, while millennials and Generation Z’s tend to follow plant-based diets due to concerns about the environmental challenges we currently face.

Quick-service restaurant Quesada Burritos & Tacos recently introduced its Beyond Meat Burrito and Burrito Bowl, making it the first Mexican-style QSR in Canada to partner with the increasingly popular U.S. brand. Steve Gill, founder and Chief Recipe Officer of Quesada, says consumer demand is driving these new menu changes.

“We’ve had an overwhelmingly positive response to our plant-based menu items, but response to the Beyond Meat Burrito has been exceptional right across the country,” he says. “Even though we’ve always had tasty options for vegans, vegetarians and ‘flexitarians,’ we’re committed, now more than ever, to provide new and exciting plant-based menu items to support the growing trend of eating less meat.”

With many consumers becoming selective about the type of beef they consume, choosing a plant-based-protein option, such as Beyond Meat, has proven to be a successful practice for QSRs.

“Recipe innovation is the cornerstone of our business and we take a lot of pride in developing Mexican-inspired flavours that satisfy the evolving demands of today’s consumer,” Gill adds.

This concept is gaining traction across the foodservice spectrum, with menus celebrating vegetarian options as opposed to setting them off to one side of the menu. In St. John’s, chef Leah Stultz of EVOO in the Courtyard, is focusing on making her menus appealing to guests who follow plant-based diets, as well as providing some of the tastiest Mediterranean-inspired menu items in the city.

“We have a full vegan menu [at EVOO in the Courtyard] in addition to our regular menu,” she says. “When I started, there were no spots in the city that catered to both vegans and non-vegans — it was either, or. I knew this type of establishment was lacking and I tried to make something that catered to the vegan population but also tasted good.”

As a Mediterranean restaurant, EVOO in the Courtyard focuses largely on Italian-style menu items. It was challenging to create this vegan menu in meat-centric St. John’s, but Stultz says the decision has filled a large gap in the local market.

“Cooking vegan-friendly food challenges me and my cooks — more so than the non-vegan options,” she continues. “You have to find substitutions [for meat and dairy] that still taste good, while maintaining the integrity of the end product.”

The 26-year-old Nova Scotia-native’s cuisine was recently listed as some of the best in the country, with EVOO in the Courtyard making OpenTable’s 2018 list of 50 Best Restaurants in Canada with Vegetarian Options. She credits the success of her plant-based menu with making her substitutions from scratch.

“We have a few different pizzas, including the Mediterranean Vegan Pizza ($19) that we make cashew cheese in house for,” she explains. “So that already sets us apart from other local options — a lot of people don’t put in the effort to make vegan-alternative ingredients.”

Other items from the vegan menu include hand-rolled gnocchi with vegan pistou, soy ricotta, pomodoro and greens ($19) and the mushroom fettuccine with cashew cream ($20). Stultz and front-of-house manager Stephanie Mauger are also working to ensure the bar menu is entirely vegan friendly.

“We’re making shifts in terms of our cocktail and wine program,” Mauger says. “We want people to come into the restaurant and not have to question anything.”

Another restaurant to make OpenTable’s list, Calgary’s Koi, is unique in every way. A full-service restaurant and events/concert venue, it’s been offering a full range of vegetarian-friendly menu items since opening in 2009.

“For the last 10 years, we’ve consistently been one of the top vegetarian- and vegan-friendly restaurants in Calgary,” owner Erin Penosky says. “There’s a lot more popping up in the city [now], but we’ve always had over half our menu vegan or vegetarian — and it’s not just salad. Our menu items are translatable into what [the consumer] wants.”

Koi’s Asian-inspired menu has a customizable aspect for its entrée options — you can choose whichever protein you like, with a rice, noodle or curry base (each $16). They also offer an Asian black-bean burger main course ($18) and several plant-based appetizers.

Because Koi is a place where anyone can eat, Penosky says it’s cemented its place in the local community. “We’re a live-music venue, so we do different events throughout the week — from spoken word to trance and hip-hop,” she explains. “I took over in 2016 and have been focusing on promoting great food and music. We’ve made subtle changes to the menu, but it’s hard to change [the menu] when it’s working.”

The focus at Koi is now shifting toward collaborating with local chefs and hosting vegan pop-up-dinner events, which Penosky says is changing the game in terms of what’s currently on offer for vegans and vegetarians in Calgary.

“It’s a new take on veganism,” she says. “As both a restaurant and a venue, we’re the only ones doing both really well.”

The shift from having separate vegetarian menu items to having fluid menus that can be customized or slightly altered to accommodate any diet has proven a smart business move for Canadian foodservice providers. As dictated by our newly launched Food Guide (which was 13 years in the making), Canadians should be eating more alternative proteins and a healthy amount of whole grains.

So, how do we make our vegetable-forward menus unique, delicious and innovative while toning down the animal products? McCormick Canada’s chef Juriaan Snellen says it’s all about packing in as much bold flavour as possible.

“It’s important to know that umami and bold flavours are very important to plant-based products, because they help with cravings and feeling satisfied,” he explains. “You always have to boost the natural flavour of the vegetables or plant-based proteins you’re using. “

Snellen says you can achieve the necessary flavour boost through your cooking method — be it braising, charring, roasting or sautéing — and to add an extra punch of flavour without the added sodium or sugar, you can use seasoning blends designed to naturally enhance those flavours.

“Everybody — especially flexitarians — is trying to reduce the amount of meat they’re eating, so mock meat and plant-based barbecue are trends we’re going to see on the rise,” he continues. “When you think of barbecue, vegetarian is not the first thing that comes to mind. This is where the opportunity lies. One great ingredient is jackfruit — once you pull jackfruit, it has the consistency of pulled pork.”

Written by Janine Kennedy

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