A conversation on plant-based menus, marketing and more

As hospitality professionals, this group will tell you they think of the customer first when planning menus, dreaming up new concepts, ordering food, posting on social media…everything involved in running an onsite foodservice operation.

Looking at data on what customers want combined with experiencing real-life scenes in the dining room will readily show that more people are going meatless more often. Just don’t label them as vegan or vegetarian, because they might still enjoy a stray piece of bacon here or there or a cheeseburger that came from a cow every now and then.

In the book Our Changing Menu: Climate Change and the Foods We Love and Need by Michael P. Hoffmann, Carrie Koplinka and Danielle L. Eiseman, two of the authors conducted a survey that found “two-thirds of respondents expressed a moderate or higher level of concern that climate change would affect their food choices.”

A recent study on Gen Z by Y-Pulse showed a majority of this young generation consider themselves “meat eaters who love veggies.”

We gathered a small group of three foodservice veterans—two onsite chefs and a sustainability manager who’s also a chef—to take their temperature on how plant-based philosophy turns into a winning plant-based plan of action. These chefs have lived and served through the popularity of low-fat diets, Snackwells cookies, the Atkins craze, Paleo and more. Where food fads fizzle out as a rule, many foodservice pros seem to find the new ideas and intersections around plant-based eating are less restrictive and more inclusive, therefore leading to real staying power. Read on for a chat with Sodexo Regional Sustainability Manager April Word, Point Loma Nazarene University Executive Chef Dave McHugh and Chef Juan Zamorano of San Diego Unified School District.

How did you and your customers perceive plant-based food 15 or 20 years ago?

“It used to be perceived as something that a very select group of people would do. Almost elitist, and unaffordable. Also, some people thought that eating plant-based would deprive them of good nutrition and they would have to sacrifice satiety and flavor.”—Juan Zamorano

“These days, plant-based options are more of an exception these days. No more is it an oddity to have no animal products in composed salads or side dishes. I remember asking guests what they were doing when they would be forking through a dish and they would ask, ‘Where is the meat at?’”—Dave McHugh

“There is definitely an increasing awareness and consumer demand for a wider and better selection of plant-based options. I think there’s a greater understanding that what we eat impacts not only our health, but also the health of the planet. People are looking for climate solutions and starting to understand that their day-to-day dining choices can be a part of that. I also think the technological innovations the last few years have brought plant-based proteins into the mainstream in a whole new way, as opposed to just having the tofu option like it used to be.”—April Word

Do your customers want to be labeled “vegetarian” or “vegan” and in turn have menus labeled as such?

“I think only 4 to 5% of Americans identify as vegetarian, but that number goes up closer to 15% amongst college students. On the other hand, over 35% of college students identify as flexitarian, which I think is a helpful term. I’m a big fan of the term reducetarian because that suggest that no matter where you are on the spectrum, you can make choices every day to reduce your animal product consumption.”—Word

“Our K-12 customers know what they like and pay little or no attention to whether the food is considered vegetarian, plant-forward, plant-based or vegan. If they like pizza in general, they are more likely to take any type of pizza, including cheese pizza, which is vegetarian.”— Zamorano

“To many college students, the daily expectation is fresh, quality food that’s unique and flavorful, without sweet and sticky sauces automatically added.”—McHugh

Let’s talk menus! What are some plant-based menu items you’ve had success with?

“Some of our most popular plant-forward items are three-bean chili, Eva’s Avocado Salad, veggie burgers and the Truitt Dipper and Veggie Plate. But defining success is a complicated thing when it comes to plant-based. This can mean different things to different people. For us, plant-based success means we are educating our students to make healthier eating choices.”—Zamorano

“Each time our vegan cauliflower taco station is offered as a special event, all the managers automatically arrive at the station to assist with plate up and execution. From fresh corn tortillas to handmade pico de gallo and guacamole, it’s a hit and we will serve 450 to 650 an hour for the entire lunch service!”—McHugh

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At Point Loma Nazarene University, the cauliflower taco pop-up sells hundreds and hundreds of plant-based tacos per hour.

“Big hits across multiple campuses are fried cauliflower tacos (see above), jackfruit carnitas tacos and plant-based pizzas. We’ve just started rolling out Incogmeato Chick’n tenders and those are a hit amongst even meat-eating students. They love when plant-based dishes offer great flavor and texture. It also helps where there are familiar or comforting elements. It’s one thing to step out of your comfort zone in one way, but that shouldn’t mean you necessarily have to adopt a whole new way of eating.”—Word

How do you let diners know if an item is plant-based?

“In most cases the same way we would communicate what any other entrée is. An honest description with a dash of marketing pixie dust. Describe the cooking method used, describe the origin of the dish and describe its journey to our table, while describing how appetizing and tasty the food is, due to herbs, spices and texture.”—Zamorano

“Our standard signage will indicate if an item is vegetarian (no meat products), vegan (no animal products at all), and/or plant-based, which is basically vegan, but makes the exception of honey and white sugar, which are products some strict vegans avoid, but many less-strict diners will enjoy.”—Word

“A few semesters ago we noted that our vegan program needed to be enhanced. As a result, we created a new station for all guests. Students now make a beeline to Chef’s Vegan Station, or they can build a vegan salad at the salad bar first and then go to the station for plant-based toppers and add-ons.”—McHugh

“Fake meats” have gotten very sophisticated lately, but recent financial reports in The Wall Street Journal show a plateau effect, possibly due to customers asking, “Is it really healthier?” and “How processed is this item?” What are your thoughts on those products?

“I think there’s room for both. Beyond meat has definitely been a game-changer in terms of popularizing plant-based alternatives and making the very notion way more mainstream. That said, I kind of disagree with the notion that we need solutions that present a 1:1 sub for meat eaters. The average American eats about 55 lbs. of beef per year. I don’t think switching that to 55 lbs. of ‘fake meat’ is a real solution. We need to shift towards more vegetable-forward eating across the board. I also have some hesitancy to rely too much on any product that essentially supports the current agricultural system of monocropping. I don’t think our solutions can rely just on industrial corn and soy; we need to also be focusing on how we treat the land in the process of growing these crops and move towards systems that support more biodiversity, not less.”—Word

“I don’t mind fake meats as part of a recipe playing a supporting role, but serving it as the main component in a dish is not something I’m too excited about. I’m a little uneasy about the sodium content, preservatives, artificial coloring and the amount of processing that goes into making some of these products.”—Zamorano

“This is very relevant. Based on our students voting with their choices, we have seen a noticeable shift away from pre-formed faux meats. Having meat flavor and consistency (tooth and mouthfeel) remains much less important to those who have long-ago decided to forgo meats. The win is when your when your flexitarians imbibe. More often, a phrase I hear from guests is: ‘I couldn’t even tell if there was meat in there or not…and it doesn’t matter!”—McHugh

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Meat Me Halfway, a book and a movie by documentarian Brian Kateman, explores the idea of ​​simply eating less meat and becoming a “reducetarian.”

We have to ask: Is plant-based eating more than just a fad?

“Oh yeah! We strongly believe that plant-based styles of cooking are very much here to stay and it will continue to have a growing presence on our menus. It may not even be seen as something different as better cooking techniques, recipes and training continue to bring plant-based style closer to mainstream cooking.”—Zamorano

“It’s definitely more than a flash in the pan. As a company, we want to be part of the climate solution and we know that what we choose to serve can play a huge role. That’s why we’ve made the commitment that 42% of our menu offerings in the campus segment will be plant-based by 2024, up from our current 27%. This goal ties to our larger objective to reduce our carbon footprint by 50% by 2025. We’re investing time, resources, training and menu development to ensure this isn’t just a trendy fad. Our customers are paying attention to the state of the environment and seeing the impacts of climate change with their own eyes and they want to do something. So we’re trying to support their choices by providing knowledge and a delicious array of plant-based options to choose from. The truth is the planet can’t sustain our current meat consumption habits so we can’t afford for this to be just a trend.”—Word

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