Menu Innovations | November 2013 | By Barney Wolf

Vegging Out

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Fast food restaurant incorporate more vegetarian items for healthy offerings.
About one-third of quick serves have a menu item identified as vegetarian, according to Datassential. McILHENNY COMPANY/TABASCO BRAND
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Cook says he was recently challenged to develop a new veggie pizza and has come up with a Mediterranean version, which he calls an “explosive” pie. Mediterranean restaurants have drawn people looking to go meatless because of items such as hummus and bean-based falafel that are growing in popularity in the U.S.

American-style Chinese restaurants have an array of menu items that include meat, but vegetables have long been a staple in Asian cooking. Additionally, tofu is a component of many East Asian and Southeast Asian cuisines. At Pei Wei Asian Diner, numerous dishes are vegetarian, designated as such on the menu. Guests can add the chain’s five-spice sliced tofu and vegetables rather than meat.

“We’ve catered to our current vegetarian diners with some of our sauces, although we do use chicken stock in a couple,” says Phil Butler, creative culinary chef at the pan-Asian chain based in Scottsdale, Arizona. The vegetables include bell and chili peppers, broccoli, cabbage, various types of mushrooms, onions, snap peas, carrots, and more.

Pei Wei is testing new large and small menu items in 13 restaurants around the country. These dishes include vegetarian entrées like the Hunan Vegetable Lettuce Wrap with tofu, shiitake mushrooms, zucchini, red bell peppers, red onions, scallions, and lettuce. Several new items rely on different methods of wok cooking to provide various flavors. One is the Wok Roasted Vegetable Salad with cauliflower, zucchini, carrots, green beans, and other ingredients.

“We use the wok to blister the vegetables, so it’s almost smoky,” Butler says. “It’s about slowing down the cooking so we can reduce the sodium and sugar to show the real flavors.”

An Asian salad is one of the many meatless items at Fresh To Order. The dish has mixed baby greens, candied walnuts, tomatoes, sesame seeds, avocado, pickled ginger, crisp noodles, and mandarin oranges. The chain has several other vegetarian salads, as well as meatless soups, paninis, and pizzas. Tofu can be added as a protein item in many of the dishes. There’s even a vegan menu.

A personal touch is part and parcel of the Fresh To Order menu. The Black Bean Burger, for instance, is made with beans smashed and formed into patties at each restaurant. Tofu is seared in a rosemary, garlic, and lemon-infused olive oil. “Giving the tofu a hard sear really brings a nuttiness and toastiness,” Gideon says.

Sandwich and deli locations, known for meats, also have vegetarian options. Quick-serve giant Subway has long featured the Veggie Delight sub as a core item, and many of the chain’s locations offer a veggie patty as a meat replacement. Customers can also build a sandwich with any ingredients they want.

“Picture our menu as a sort of a list of suggestions,” says spokesman Les Winograd.

Jason’s Deli has a separate vegetarian menu, with three soups, three salads, three sandwiches or wraps, and three pasta dishes, plus sides. It also has a vegan section. Those items are not particularly huge sellers, but the salad bar is.

“It is not all vegetarian, because there is tuna pasta out there and bacon bits for people who want to make a Cobb salad, but that’s about it,” says Pat Herring, director of research and development for the Beaumont, Texas–based fast casual.

Not only is the salad bar the top vegetarian menu item, but it’s also the overall No. 1 seller at Jason’s Deli. “People can take control of their meal,” he says. “They can take a little and come back for seconds. It is huge for us and the brand.”

Although the chain’s roots are in the world of delicatessens, Jason’s Deli has been continually adding more meatless options. Recently, it also initiated a build-your-own sandwich “to give you even more control,” Herring says.

If there’s any menu item that’s fundamental to the American limited-service restaurant, it’s the hamburger, and vegetarians haven’t been shut out here, either. Even one of the big three burger chains, Burger King, has a veggie burger on the menu.

Typical of the new type of meatless hamburger is the Garden Veggie Burger at Back Yard Burgers. It has a bean-based patty with a small amount of soy, and is served with ketchup, mustard, dill pickles, leaf lettuce, a tomato slice, red onions, salt, and pepper.

The patty can be used in other specialty sandwiches.

“We want to offer a well-rounded variety of items to give guests a lot of choices,” says Angela Vega, director of culinary at the company, which is based in Nashville, Tennessee. The veggie burger is “a lighter option many of our guests like.”

The burger chain uses a separate segment of its grill just for various non-meat items. “We keep those away from the other proteins, because it is the right thing to do,” Vega says.