Marc Halperin: Resident F&B Expert | June 2010 | By Marc Halperin

Cheese Is a Game-Changer

Consumers have long eaten cheesy, yet meatless, entrées. Why not leverage cheese’s appeal to draw vegetarian and health-minded customers?

A few months ago in this space, I discussed the vast number of avenues chains could explore to take advantage of the sensory benefits of cheese.

When baked into breads or incorporated into coatings or dressings, cheese lends foods a provocative taste, satisfying texture, and rich, smooth mouthfeel. From a nutritional perspective, meanwhile, those pressed curds of milk add plenty of protein, calcium, and Vitamin D.

For these reasons and others, cheese has long been among the most popular meat accompaniments—and the most popular meat substitutes. Even the most devout hamburger junkie or chicken sandwich devotee won’t likely turn up his nose at the thought of a grilled cheese sandwich, a slice of cheese pizza, a bowl of Fettuccine Alfredo, or a salad topped with blue cheese crumbles. In almost every instance, cheese imparts a heft and depth that somehow seems to make meat unnecessary.

The ability to displace meat is an asset that shouldn’t be overlooked or undervalued in an era when more young consumers—the ones with perhaps 70 to 80 years of restaurant patronage still ahead of them—are interested in meatless dining.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in 2007 that 1.5 percent of U.S. adults had followed a vegetarian diet for two or more weeks during 2006—down slightly from the 1.6 percent of adults who made the same claim in a 2002 survey.

But on the more youthful end of the spectrum, the picture was considerably different: In 2005, the polling firm Harris Interactive noted that 3 percent of Americans between the ages of 8 and 18 were vegetarians, up 1 percent from a previous poll. More recently, a survey of students at the State University of New York at Purchase found that while about one-third of respondents self-identified as vegetarians, more than 90 percent regularly dined at the campus’ vegetarian Terra Ve Cafe.

Now, no one I know wants or expects to see Steak ’n Shake become Tofu ’n Tea, or to see Fatburger transformed into Portabelloburger. But the fact remains that a significant number of younger consumers are, and will likely continue to be, interested in meatless alternatives to traditional fast food fare. Here are my suggestions for bringing a measure of meat-free diversity to the menuboard without wandering too far off the ranch.

Bring the Big Flavor

Deservedly or not, vegetarian entrées often get a bad rap for being bland. Maybe this hearkens back to the antiquated idea of the vegetarian as a scrawny celery-stalk-cruncher, but it certainly doesn’t reflect modern reality. With the right combination of herbs, spices, vegetables, and oils, a meatless dish can be every bit as interesting and eye-opening as a counterpart that caters to carnivores.

A Greek-style sandwich made of grilled peppers, onions, zucchini, or summer squash, and a thick layer of garlic-tomato hummus leaves no palate pining for animal protein, just as a fresh bean burrito packed with chiles, Mexican rice, cilantro, and fresh vegetables, all wrapped in a cheese-and-flour tortilla, would be no second banana to beefier brethren.

Consider Pastas, Grains, and Starches

Clearly, noodles and starches won’t make the cut at every concept, but the dense, toothsome, and endlessly versatile pleasures of pastas, grains, and starches—particularly potatoes—make it easy to overcome the meat-lover’s veto at lunchtime.

With cheese-stuffed ravioli in various vegetable sauces, gnocchi, or hearty risotto cakes made with diced veggies and herbs, even a Fort Smith fullback could subsist on this sort of meatlessness.

And there’s always the humble spud: Long prized for its value as a quick-serve side in the form of fries, tots, and hash browns, it’s not hard to envision giving it a more central position on the plate with some creative formulations. But with the right marketing behind them, a potato-vegetable latke-like patty or knish-type concoction might do a fine job of standing in for a meat-based dish.

A Better Veggie Burger

Few phrases strike fear into the heart of a true meat lover quite like veggie burger. The term evokes images of wan, frail, little pressed patties made from a mostly unidentifiable agglomeration of … what? Oats, perhaps—maybe brown rice, minced onion, mushrooms, carrots, and some sort of ill-defined soy protein mush.

But a new generation of tasty veggie burgers is emerging, sandwiches that belie their humble origins with a flavor profile that’s bold, texture reminiscent of a real burger, and, in many cases, a serious spicy kick.

San Francisco’s Plant Café Organic, for instance, elevated the veggie burger to a fine art, with patties made from lentils, bulgur wheat, beets, and cashews. And there’s toppings that include roasted onion and aioli and options ranging from sauerkraut and wasabi to avocado and white cheddar.

Don’t Ignore the Street

With meat consumption in many developing nations on the rise, it’s easy to forget that meat still constitutes only a fraction of most people’s diets in places such as China and India. Highly popular street foods from these and other global regions, therefore, have often been meatless and highly flavorful. From Latin American fare such as arepas and pupusas—Venezuelan corn pancakes and Salvadoran tortilla-like corn biscuits, respectively—to Indian samosas and Vietnamese spring rolls, options abound.

Simply adapting pan-Latin and pan-Asian street fare for quick-serve applications could keep a menu developer busy for eons.

Though it may seem like a niche market to go after, tempting quick-serve patrons with meatless alternatives could be a profitable pursuit as the more carnivorous customers yield to a more herbivorous and omnivorous Gen Y demographic. Think of cheese as the gateway food that opens doors to other meatless options, and throw the gates open wide.

Marc Halperin

A classically trained chef who earned his Grand Diplôme d’Études Culinaires at Paris’s prestigious Ecole de Cuisine La Varenne, COO Marc Halperin brings considerable gastronomic expertise and more than two decades of restaurant-consulting and teaching experience to the table. Prior to co-founding CCD, Halperin’s culinary tenure included stints in such celebrated kitchens as those of Taillevent and Maxim’s in Paris, Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, and the Deer Valley Ski Resort in Park City, Utah, where he served as head pastry chef during the resort's inaugural season. Later, he was a chef instructor at Le Cordon Rouge cooking school in Sausalito, California, and at the California Culinary Academy.

Marc is a professional member of the Research Chefs Association and a member of the San Francisco Professional Food Society, and currently contributes each month to QSR Halperin holds a Bachelor’s degree in biology from Reed College in Portland, Oregon, and a Master’s in music performance from Boston University.