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    Expert Advice for Going Plant-Based in Fast Casual

  • As consumers add more fruits and vegetables to their diets, restaurants respond in kind with craveable vegan options.

    HipCityVeg
    HipCityVeg may have an entirely plant-based menu, but it’s also targeting meat-loving consumers.

    The world is not going vegan, but plant-based eating is far from going away. If anything, it’s become a more frequent meal choice, even for those who still eat animal proteins. According to Datassential, 22 percent of consumers are limiting their meat and/or poultry consumption, while 52 percent have increased their fruit intake over the past year. Furthermore, 44 percent of Gen Zers report that they enjoy the taste of plant-based foods.

    This presents a ripe opportunity for menu innovation beyond the basic veggie burger. Concepts specializing in approachable, plant-based foods are sprouting around the country. At the same time, menus with meats and dairy are adding creative vegan dishes.

    Three restaurant leaders entrenched in the burgeoning category share their thoughts on the plant-based movement that’s just getting started.

    Nicole Marquis / Founder & Owner, HipCityVeg

    I usually group the benefits [of a plant-based diet] into three categories: personal health, environmental stewardship, and animal rights. There is extensive scientific documentation for the first two and overwhelming moral justification for the third. But we don’t preach any of that in our restaurants, choosing instead to focus on one of the greatest challenges of a plant-based diet: making a delicious plant-based diet accessible and convenient to everyone.

    We start by presenting it in a format that people are already familiar with—burgers, fries, wraps, and shakes—eliminating the resistance to trying something new. The appeal of plant-based menu items has skyrocketed in the few years since we opened. Restaurants in every sector have responded to the increased demand, often with creative menu items that put vegetables at the center of the plate. That is the future of foodservice.

    “Vegan” implies a philosophy. It is not necessary to subscribe to any of the tenets of that philosophy in order to eat a plant-based meal or to maintain an exclusively plant-based diet. “Plant-based” more accurately describes our restaurants as we aim to tempt your taste buds—not tell you what to think.

    People used to think of [a plant-based meal] as rabbit food. Now they perceive it as clean, and they notice that they are completely satisfied and don’t feel weighed down. It’s a great way to feel.

    Brad Borchardt / Director of Culinary Standards, Flower Child

    Plant-based food has become a part of the mainstream culinary world. It’s exciting to be leading this conversation at Flower Child. We work hard to maintain consistency and quality throughout the seasons.

    It’s not very hard to make plants appealing. They are the most diverse and offer the broadest range of texture in the food world. Plants always lead in the development of new dishes, either meat-based or vegetarian.

    Our menu allows guests to customize their experience. Whatever program you follow or restriction you have in your diet, we can accommodate it and are happy to do so. Flower Child prepares high-quality, scratch-based food, served quickly. Our guests tell us often how important it is to them that we take the extra step to ensure they leave happy and fulfilled.

    Consciousness and education of plant-based diets are growing. People are seeking new flavors and are open to new ingredients. Five years ago, Thai basil was much more exotic than it is today. That’s really fun for a chef and opens up a world of creativity.

    You can have a plant-based diet without being vegan. Some people are choosing to eat plant-based one or two days per week but don’t want to label themselves as vegetarian or vegan. It just makes them feel good to eat that way. Let’s call it “plant-centric.”

    Robert Lee / CEO, Coolgreens

    Since 2009, we have evolved our menu around a plant-based core while also offering sea and land proteins, cheeses, and healthy, sweet snack options. These options cater to a variety of dietary lifestyles, because everyone’s idea of healthy can be different.

    Whole-food, plant-based diets are difficult to achieve in an on-the-go environment. There’s always an easier way to do something, but most often at the sacrifice of quality. In our case, this would mean outsourcing the production of all of our ingredients. While this sure would be easier, quicker, and cheaper, we would be lowering the overall quality of our food.

    Ten years ago, many whole food, plant-based dietary choices were coined trendy. These trends are now commonplace. Consumers are seeking a place to accomplish their dietary goals, as opposed to adjusting their diet to meet the menu. This switch in consumer behavior puts significant pressure on restaurants to offer more healthy options. I believe this pressure has—and will continue to be—very positive for our industry in the years to come.