Beef, pork, poultry, and seafood may be the staples of the limited-service restaurant industry, but non-meat items aren’t taking a back seat on the menu these days. Although vegetarians make up a small percentage of the American dining population, an increasing number of consumers are deciding to eat less meat.
“Ten years ago, it might have seemed like a fad, with just a small population, but it’s been constantly increasing,” says Jesse Gideon, corporate chef and chief operating officer for Fresh To Order, a 10-unit fast-casual chain based in Atlanta.
Considering diners who choose to go meatless at least part of the time is a good idea for all types of restaurant operators, the chef adds, because creating menu items for them “is really no harder or no easier than traditional food.”
About one-third of quick-service restaurants are menuing at least one dish identified as vegetarian, either in name or description, according to statistics compiled by market research group Datassential. Additionally, many build-your-own menu options, including salads, aren’t identified as vegetarian, but can be customized as such, says Maeve Webster, a senior director at Datassential. Similarly, Portobello mushroom burgers are a choice for non-carnivores despite identifying as burgers.
Creating tasty vegetarian items eliminates the veto vote among consumers who choose not to eat meat, Webster says. These entrées may also appeal to a wide variety of other diners, helping the dishes “become a better workhorse for operators.”
The actual percentage of Americans who are true vegetarians has remained steady at about 4 percent, according to a series of Harris Polls commissioned by the Vegetarian Resource Group (vrg), a nonprofit educational organization based in Baltimore. However, the most recent poll, conducted last year, found that 47 percent of the country eats at least one meal without meat per week, up from 40 percent six years earlier.
“That’s why we’re seeing so many restaurants adding vegetarian dishes,” says Charles Stahler, co-director of the VRG.
Vegetarians and vegans—the 1 percent of Americans who don’t consume animal products, including milk and eggs—may be the “loudmouths” advocating meatless ingredients, Stahler says, but “people eating a few meatless meals are the ones keeping the items in the restaurants.”
The growth of entrée salad options at limited-service restaurants has been a positive change, he says. He also notes that many Mexican-style eateries have plenty of options for people seeking a meatless meal.
That is confirmed by Datassential statistics. Almost 42 percent of Mexican limited-service restaurants have at least one entrée that is specifically vegetarian. “Taco Bell has had options like the bean burrito for a long time,” Stahler says.
The addition of more Mexican restaurant chains has brought even more choices, with burritos, tacos, and quesadillas filled with ingredients such as rice, beans, grilled vegetables, lettuce, guacamole, cheese, and sour cream. Some national and regional fast-casual Mexican grills are also offering tofu as a protein alternative to beef, pork, poultry, or seafood.
Baja Tofu has been a menu option at Hot Harry’s Fresh Burritos since the seven-unit, Pittsfield, Massachusetts–based chain launched in 2004. The tofu is marinated in a citrus-garlic mix and then lightly fried, says cofounder Samir Abdallah.
“We have specialty burritos like Buffalo Chicken or Thai Chicken that can have the chicken replaced by tofu,” he says.
Among vegetarian offerings at Hot Harry’s, beans are the most popular, followed by tofu and a vegetable medley. These items make up about 5 percent of sales.
One issue for customers who choose a vegetarian option is where vegetables and tofu are cooked. These diners don’t want to eat items prepared on the same grill where meat is cooked, although the VRG poll found 56 percent would do so if the grill were cleaned first. At the older Hot Harry’s locations, the veggies are prepared on a different area of the griddle than the meat. Newer units have a second, smaller griddle for non-meat items.
This year, the biggest player among fast-casual, Southwest-style restaurant operations, Chipotle Mexican Grill, added its own version of tofu in its Sofritas option. Launched in January as a test in seven San Francisco stores, the item is now available across California and is in about three dozen units in Oregon and Washington.
Sofritas consist of shredded tofu braised with chipotle chiles, roasted poblanos, and a blend of aromatic spices in the company commissary, says Danielle Winslow, a spokeswoman for the Denver-based company.
“It has a taste that’s a little on the spicy side,” she says of the organic tofu product. The portion size, 4 ounces, is the same as other proteins on the menu.
Chipotle has had a long history of meatless options. About the only non-vegetarian items are meats and pinto beans, which are made with some bacon. Those two, plus cheese, sour cream, and vinaigrette (made with honey) are the sole non-vegan ingredients. So far, Sofritas are garnering about 4 or 5 percent of sales where available. A quarter to a third of diners choosing tofu are typically meat eaters, according to the company.
Another segment of the limited-service restaurant universe that has a large number of vegetarian options, according to Datassential, is Italian, notably pizza parlors. However, one concern is whether the restaurant is using a tomato sauce that also includes beef.
Atlanta-based Uncle Maddio’s Pizza Joint, a fast-casual pie maker, has plenty of options for those going meatless. There are three types of crust, six sauces, and more than 45 toppings, including two dozen veggie choices, from artichoke hearts to zucchini.
“There are a lot of vegetables people can choose,” says Alex Cook, head chef and vice president of operations for the 18-unit chain. “And we also have great signature pizzas.”
The Simply Veggie signature pie, for instance, has tomato-basil sauce, Mozzarella, Roma tomatoes, banana peppers, zucchini, mushrooms, black olives, and basil. For vegans, Uncle Maddio’s offers dairy-free Daiya cheese, and the whole-wheat crust does not include the traditional cheese.
“I know there are a lot of folks who will be indulgent and eat beef or pork, and then they go through a cleansing process where they eat vegetarian,” Cook says. In many stores, up to 20 percent of Uncle Maddio’s customers choose a vegetarian option.
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.