(6 min read)
In this recent webinar, our expert panel of food-service professionals gave advice on how best to integrate plant-based options into your food-service business. The panel consisted of Lauren Spokes, Head of Sales UK Foodservice at Heura Foods; Claire Roper, Marketing & Innovation Consultant for Foodservice; and Dean Wilson Hartles, Director of Food & Drinks Development at The Restaurant Group.
Some of the key topics covered include:
Keep reading for a summary of the webinar, or watch the full recording of the webinar and make sure you don’t miss a thing.
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An important part of optimising your menus to consumer demands is knowing what the current trends are in the sector and considering how you might adapt them to fit your brand and appeal to your consumer base.
Drawing from her experience at Heura, Lauren highlights how the amount of innovation within the category means that brands and restaurants must now focus on making plant-based options the norm on menus, enticing consumers to choose them not just as an alternative to the animal-based option but because they are tasty and exciting in their own right.
This graph shows the huge increase in interest in plant-based restaurants in Europe between 2007 and 2019.
The trend towards health-consciousness has also made its mark on the plant-based sector. Lauren highlights how Heura’s range focuses closely on this element, ensuring its meat-alternative products are nutritionally better than their animal-based counterparts. “If [a consumer’s] motivation is purely health- and nutrition-driven, plant-based can be a great choice to make”, Lauren says, emphasising the importance of capitalising on this trend.
For Claire, those developing plant-based menu options need to take broader food trends and consumer preferences into account. She points out the growing desire for street food-style options and heavier spices. If plant-based wants to stay relevant and appealing, it will need to go beyond providing consumers with basic switches, and instead start pushing the envelope just as the wider food industry does.
“You’re not switching everything when you’re trying to eat plant-based, [the food] should have the same look and feel,” Claire says. “We often eat in groups, and we want to feel as if we’re all sharing the same experience. Embracing wider food trends is the way to do this.”
The impact of social media and trendy online bloggers has also massively influenced the development of the plant-based category. Although his restaurants, including UK chains Frankie & Benny’s and Chiquito, have included plant-based options for the past few years, Dean notes how “it all comes down to the internet and the web – the bloggers out there have pushed plant-based massively using platforms like TikTok. You see plant-based on TikTok and you’re glued to it, you want to know more.”
Our panellists concur on the main benefit for increasing your restaurant’s plant-based offerings: namely, that it attracts customers.
Increasing plant-based offerings at specific times of the year – for example, during Veganuary – can also aid in driving customers through the door.
“We’ve been doing Veganuary in Frankie & Benny’s, which attracts more people every year, especially younger consumers,” Dean says. “The youngsters want more and more plant-based [options] on the menu.”
Attracting younger consumers by taking part in campaigns such as Veganuary has the effect of creating a positive feedback loop, with younger customers turning to social media to celebrate and spread the word about their positive experience.
Increasing your plant-based menu offerings has the added effect of making your business more sustainable and climate-friendly, which attracts environmentally-conscious consumers. Heura Foods, for example, has partnered with Klimato, a company who helps restaurants to calculate the carbon emissions of their menu items. Using the Klimato software, Heura is able to calculate the emissions impact of swapping out animal-based meat for their plant-based alternatives. Klimato use a logo to signal to diners which menu options are low in carbon emissions, thereby empowering them to take a more active role in controlling their carbon emissions.
And if your company doesn’t feature a wide range of plant-based options for consumers to choose from? Well, you risk losing out on business, and not just from vegan individuals. According to Claire, vegan individuals hold a lot of power in the decision-making process of big groups when it comes to choosing where to eat. People don’t want to feel excluded or to exclude others, so choosing the most vegan-friendly restaurants has become common practice amongst many consumers.
“People are demanding more and more, so you can’t just approach [including plant-based options] as a tick box exercise anymore,” Claire says. “People want food they can Instagram about, food that looks good, and food that is nutritious. There’s a challenge here, but also an opportunity.”
Dean agrees, highlighting how food is no longer just something to be consumed and forgotten about, but rather as something to be experienced. Infusing your plant-based menu items with many different elements can help to add to this culinary experience, and will keep them coming back for more. “Taste and texture are so important now, compared to the old days,” he says. “Consumers want the full experience.”
One of the main barriers agreed upon by all of our panellists is that of training chefs to become empowered plant-based connoisseurs. Currently, there are few formal qualifications available to chefs that focus specifically on the preparation of plant-based food, so in-house training is a necessity.
“It’s about helping people understand that the skills they’ve developed from cooking with meat can be translated into plant-based cooking,” says Claire, keen to emphasise that chefs are already well-equipped to cook plant-based. “It gives chefs a chance to experience and to play around with those techniques they’ve already got.”
She highlights how the industry has developed so much in recent years that we now have a plethora of plant-based ingredients to utilise, from sauces to milks to spreads and spices. “There’s an opportunity now to embrace it rather than worrying about it,” she says.
Dean agrees, suggesting that there is a certain nervousness experienced by chefs when it comes to cooking plant-based. His advice is to get grassroots buy-in from the whole team, and to “take them on a journey.” This includes all of the workers not only in the kitchen, but also in front of house, who will need to represent the new dishes to customers in the best way possible.
“If you just put something in front of team members that is very alien, they’re not going to know what to do with it,” Dean explains. “Training is really important in overcoming this.”
For Heura, conducting demonstrations with chefs is a key way to ensure that the resulting plant-based dishes are as tasty as possible. As part of their strategy to sell to restaurants, Heura always arranges a demo with the restaurant’s head chef, who can then pass on the tips and tricks to the rest of the team. According to Lauren, “A little bit of training and education is essential.”
However, as a brand, there’s a fine line to walk between demonstrating the best way to cook your product and telling a chef how to do their job. The best way to approach this balance is to focus on showcasing your range, and to get chefs and other kitchen staff interested in plant-based cooking by presenting a whole dish, rather than just disparate ingredients.
“All suppliers should offer either education, training, or should get involved in one way or another,” continues Lauren. “This is a key concept on how to differentiate yourself as a brand in the plant-based world.”
Aside from training and upskilling chefs, changing the general culture around plant-based eating is essential to ensuring plant-based menu items are well-received by everyone.
View this post on Instagram A post shared by Heura® Foods (@heurafoods)
A post shared by Heura® Foods (@heurafoods)
Our panellists agree that one of the best strategies to overcome this issue is to combine successful chef training with customer feedback. Demos and focus groups can be key ways to achieve this.
Lauren draws on Heura’s recent experience conducting a demo at a big tech firm. “We made chorizo sliders and we were able to get that instant feedback from the consumer,” she explains. “It’s great to instil confidence in the chef as they can see first-hand that it’s something people do want to eat.”
Reviews and feedback from customers can be daunting, but you do have to start the dialogue. This will help you to develop better flavours.”
Marketing & Innovation Consultant for Foodservice
Another major barrier touched upon by our panellists is the current cost-of-living crisis. With prices going up and the amount of income available for dining out going down, how can businesses entice consumers not only to visit their location, but also to choose a potentially unfamiliar plant-based option?
Claire highlights reducing costs to achieve price parity as a central strategy to help out consumers at this time – after all, consumers already stretched thin will not want to choose the plant-based option if it’s costed at a premium. Leveraging your relationship with suppliers and considering the economies of scale for every product is essential.
“It’s about working with suppliers and wholesalers to maximise what [your restaurant] can get,” she explains. “[You must also explore] how you can maximise using a product across your menu – how can you use one product in four different ways, for example?”
Both Dean and Lauren agree, with Lauren emphasising the importance of making plant-based eating accessible even in the toughest of financial situations. She suggests that as the category grows and expands, costs will naturally reduce.
“Now is not a time to pull back on things,” Claire says. “It’s about tapping into what people like. People want experiences … if they’re going to spend their money, they’re going to want it to deliver.”
Balancing innovation with tried-and-tested consumer favourites, and tying all of this into a full experience for the customer will be the key way to loosen tightened purses. With the cost-of-living crisis in mind, consumers will be less forgiving than they might have been in the past, so adding value to your food-service experience in whatever way possible will be vital, Claire warns. Considering how you might embrace loyalty cards or referral schemes will entice consumers and set you apart from your competitors.
Vital to any food-service business – plant-based or otherwise – is the menu. The careful consideration of item placement and description can have a huge impact on sales – a study published in the JAMA Internal Medicine journal found that indulgent labelling of plant-based menu items led to a 25% increase in orders compared to the non-indulgent, ‘basic’ description of the same item.Turnwald, B. P., Boles, D. Z., & A. J. Crum (2017): Association between indulgent descriptions and vegetable consumption: Twisted carrots and dynamite beets. JAMA Intern Med. 177(8) pp.1216-1218. … Continue reading
Keeping the menu item placement and the language used at the forefront of your mind when developing plant-based options is essential, and requires a keen understanding of your target demographic.
Lauren’s approach involves integrating plant-based menu items among the rest of the options. “For us [at Heura], we know that vegans are always going to find the plant-based menu option,” says Lauren. “We’re looking to appeal to flexitarians or plant-based sceptics…If we highlight the vegan aspect too much, it could put a lot of people off. If you integrate it as normal, it will encourage people to try it.”
Claire agrees that flexitarians are a vital demographic to target with your food-service menus. Having plant-based options integrated among animal-based options means non-vegan consumers might choose them just by virtue of their enticing descriptors.
“Food is evocative…the taste, texture, the whole experience,” says Claire. “You want to get that feeling across, so it’s important to think about how you’re describing it [on the menu].”
Using indulgent and exciting language that evokes different flavours, emotions and experiences will also help to break the stigma surrounding plant-based food held by many consumers – that it is bland, boring, and unenjoyable.
Highlighting the strategy employed by The Restaurant Group, Dean highlights the benefit of drawing on consumer data to inform your menu placement choices. The brand uses Yumpingo services to track consumer satisfaction levels, translating real-time data into useful insights. This allows The Restaurant Group to respond quickly to consumer preferences – a critical ability when it comes to figuring out if consumers prefer their plant-based options integrated or separated on menus.
If you’d like to know more about effective choice architecture for plant-based menu items, make sure to read our full article, ‘Choice architecture in food services: drive revenue and increase sustainability with more plant-based meals for flexitarians’, on the New Food Hub website.
With so many plant-based food brands looking to reach consumers through foodservices, it can be a tricky market to navigate. As Director of Food & Drink Development at The Restaurant Group, Dean provides us with some helpful tips and tricks on the best way to approach food-service businesses with your plant-based products. Avoiding repetition and promoting exclusive deals with foodservices are two of these key strategies.
“It’s all about innovation,” he says. “Don’t show me what I was shown last year, show me what’s coming up, and what I can have before anyone else.
In July 2022, Burger King in Austria began a campaign with the slogan ‘Normal or with meat?’ (‘Normal oder mit Fleisch?’), which saw customers served plant-based-meat burgers as the default unless they specified animal-based meat. This campaign came shortly after it was revealed that one in three burgers sold at Burger King in Belgium were meat-free.Vegconomist (2022): “Normal or With Meat?”: All Burger King Items Are Plant-Based in Austrian Experiment, Meat Must be Requested. Available at: … Continue reading Our panellists were asked their opinion on this sort of food-service campaign, to which they responded with mixed feelings.
In Lauren’s opinion, the campaign may have been a classic PR stunt, but it nevertheless helped to put plant-based on the map and in front of consumers, serving to reduce the accessibility barrier.
However, while campaigns such as Austrian Burger King’s can help to put plant-based options on the map for non-vegan consumers, Claire worries that such stunts harm the end-goal of the plant-based industry – the complete normalisation of plant-based eating. She believes that it would be even better if Burger King could commit to becoming 80% plant-based and 20% meat-based full-time, rather than as a one-time stunt.
“Sometimes it works as a stunt to show people how good menus can be, [regardless of] whether they are meat- or plant-based,” she says. “But my concern is that it promotes an element of segregation…It’s a great headline grabber, but what does it do to the longevity of the industry?”
For Heura, educating consumers on the benefits of a plant-based diet plays a huge role in their brand’s mission and marketing strategy, explains Lauren. “[Education] should be a fundamental part of plant-based…without it, those sceptics are going to remain.”
Claire points out that many brands are putting a lot of energy into educating consumers about plant-based lifestyles, but that there is still a lot of misinformation out there being peddled by major media outlets and tabloids. The ideal approach to plant-based education, for Claire, keeps things simple, factual, and avoids invoking anxiety.
“What we don’t want to do is cause mass panic and anxiety about the future of our planet,” she says. “We need to make it clear to people that you can change your behaviour one thing at a time.”
Our panellists leave us with their key pieces of advice for both brands and food-service businesses looking to expand the availability of plant-based options.
“Focusing on innovation and training will keep plant-based moving forward,” says Dean. “If we don’t get everyone on board, we’re not going to move this forward and we’re not going to bring anything new to our menus.”
Working closely with suppliers is one of the best ways to achieve this, he adds.
Make sure everyone is onboard to offer consumers the best experience of plant-based food
For Claire, embracing some of the key trends in taste discussed at the beginning of the webinar is essential. “Use these trends to your advantage to make dishes that are even better – don’t hold back.”
On top of this, she suggests maximising on marketing tools like social media to promote collaborations and brand awareness, and to gain indispensable consumer feedback. This will help you to reach new consumer groups while making plant-based eating more accessible to all. For Lauren, this is essential, and ties into her key piece of take-home advice: “Just make [your plant-based dishes] appealing…not necessarily just to vegans, but also to flexitarians.”
If you still want more insight and advice on the topic of harnessing the power of plant-based as a food-service professional, make sure to read our full whitepaper on the topic here. Make sure to keep an eye out for the next webinar in the series, and don’t waste any time in finding out all the ways you can accelerate your company’s transition to net zero, increase your profits, and help to build a better world!
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