For many of us, the sound of our moms’ admonition to eat our vegetables still echoes through our memories. But no chiding is necessary for an increasing number of Americans. The inherent health benefits of veggies have been buttressed by innovative and creative chef-inspired recipes that make even committed carnivores crave these ingredients.
And while salads have been part of the limited-service restaurant universe for decades, guests are seeking more than chopped lettuce. These days, they’re trying more dishes with asparagus, beets, and Brussels sprouts.
“You can see this across the entire marketplace,” says Jana Mann, senior director of syndicated service for market research firm Datassential. “People are being introduced to new and different vegetables. Instead of tomatoes, onions, and mushrooms, restaurants are featuring or calling out something like a varietal, so the tomato is a cherry, or grape, or even heirloom tomato, and a mushroom is a portobello or another variety.”
While tomatoes are scientifically fruits because they have seeds, chefs generally consider them vegetables because—like cucumbers, peppers, squash, and some other seeded fruits—they are savory rather than sweet.
Veggies are also gaining favor due to the movement toward unadulterated recipe elements. “You’re seeing the use of fresh and clean vegetables and other ingredients prepared right in front of us,” Mann says.
“People desire to eat less red meat, but they’re still looking for high flavor,” adds Danny Bendas, managing partner of Synergy Restaurant Consultants in Newport Beach, California. “There are now a lot of chef-inspired dishes roasting and grilling vegetables.”
Although vegetables are considered by many to be healthier, the overarching goal, he says, is to have clean food. “It’s more important than calories and fat,” Bendas says of the rise in clean-label foods. Organic and local are even better as long as they are feasible, affordable, and good quality.
Veggie-centric eating is particularly appealing to Millennials, Bendas says. That is backed by a Harris Poll survey last year for Subway that found Millennials consume more vegetables than any other generation.
“Millennials have more of a self-awareness of how they look and feel,” says Lanette Kovachi, Subway’s global dietician. “The Millennial generation was also brought up to appreciate vegetables more, and they have been introduced to more vegetables.”
While the percentage of vegetarians isn’t growing, she says, “there are a lot more flexitarians trying to choose more vegetables or mixing it up throughout the week,” referring to people with a vegetable diet mixed with occasional meat or seafood.
Many limited-service restaurants, from Taco Bell to Wendy’s, have long had menu items that are also vegetarian. Subway’s most recent vegetable addition to its core menu was spinach in 2013, and the company is “looking at more vegetable toppings,” Kovachi says.
The Harris Poll survey found tomatoes and lettuce are the most popular veggies, and Datassential ranks onions and tomatoes as tops in menu mentions. Kale is the fastest-growing vegetable on menus, followed by broccoli.
Often overlooked are potatoes. Although best known for french fries, potatoes are also showing up in other ways, particularly in breakfast menus, says Don Odiorne, vice president of foodservice at the Idaho Potato Commission.
“There is a push at breakfast to acknowledge the price of eggs has gone up a bit, so potatoes are a great way to stretch an item,” he says.
A number of limited-service restaurants have potatoes that are mashed, baked, loaded, or hash browned, while some are featuring poutine. Odiorne expects that speedier ovens will lead operators to consider adding more potato items that don’t require a fryer finish.
Bendas says all age groups, not just Millennials, are eating more varied vegetables.
“When I was a kid, no one ate Brussels sprouts, and now they’re everywhere,” he says. “You’re seeing vegetables grilled, seared, and sautéed. People want a lot of flavor and also want to be healthy. But they’re also not looking to go too far outside the box.”
The rise in vegetables’ popularity has made it possible for some limited-service concepts to focus almost entirely on vegetables. At Beefsteak in Washington, D.C.—owned by renowned chef José Andrés’ ThinkFoodGroup—there’s no beef. The name refers to the tomato variety.
“There’s an amazing variety of fresh vegetables,” says Jim Biafore, director of operations for the two-unit enterprise. “As we go through the growing season with our vegetables, not only do we have the freshest ones, but also some of the more unique ones.”
At any one time, Beefsteak features about two dozen local veggies. Some, like broccoli and carrots, are always on the menu because they can be procured fresh year-round. Others, including Brussels sprouts and asparagus, are seasonal.
The menu offers dishes like Kimchi-wa, which has rice, corn, carrots, cabbage, edamame, bok choy, scallions, kimchi, and other ingredients. Diners also can make their own bowls with a grain base, vegetables, and sauces. Proteins like salmon or chicken are available.
There is even a “burger” on the menu; it’s a slice of beefsteak tomato combined with pickled red onions, sprouts, olive oil, dressing, and sea salt on a brioche bun. “It eats like a burger, has nice mouthfeel, and is just as flavorful as any meat item,” Biafore says.
Veggie burgers have been on the menu at some quick serves for years, and just as the effort to make better burgers has increased, so have attempts at better veggie burgers. That’s the case at BurgerFi, based in Delray Beach, Florida.
“We thought if we put in the energy, time, and research and development, we could be a game changer with a burger that appealed to non–meat eaters and women,” says Steve Lieber, one of the concept’s creators. He adds that it also appeals to those wanting a break from meat.
The company, which has more than 80 restaurants, created the VeggieFi, which has a burger that starts with a quinoa base and adds mushrooms and onions sautéed in a wine reduction, lentils, carrots, zucchini, and various binding and flavor ingredients.
The VeggieFi—the choice of an eighth of customers—is fried or grilled and served with cheese, lettuce, tomato, and special sauce on a multigrain bun or a lettuce wrap. Lieber says BurgerFi also makes use of other vegetables, including beer-battered onion rings and Idaho potato french fries.