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    Why the Plant-Based Protein Space is Ripe for Innovation

  • Restaurants are choosing a range of tactics to capture vegan, vegetarian, and omnivore diners.

    veggie grill
    Veggie Grill’s Winter Avocado Toast is an example of how the brand offers complete proteins in a flavorful and indulgent format.

    With DuPont Nutrition & Health’s 2017 Health Focus International study reporting that more than half of Americans are increasing their plant-based food and beverage intake, quick-service and fast-casual restaurants are rethinking how they offer vegetarian, vegan, and plant-forward menu items. The goal is to make them more attractive and easy to order for vegetarians, yes, but especially so for meat eaters. To accomplish this, brands are leveraging whole foods that are naturally high in protein—creating crave-worthy vegan options that resemble favorite fast-food grub—and redesigning menus to make veggie-packed dishes easier to order.

    As guests become wary of potential chemicals and genetically modified ingredients in their food, companies like Veggie Grill are offering more menu items that leverage whole, complete proteins in an approachable format—like in the 33-unit brand’s Sonoran Bowl, which combines protein-packed quinoa and seasoned black beans with crispy Brussels sprouts, avocado, salsa, jalapeños, and a roasted red pepper sauce. Use of high-quality ingredients that customers can easily recognize, however, comes at a higher cost, says CEO Steve Heeley. “It’s always a balance of price versus quality, but we try to engineer purchasing, supply chain, and our vendor partnerships so that we can keep our food affordable.”

    Applying a similar approach for its WTF (weekly taco feature) program, Velvet Taco, with 10 locations, has explored using whole ingredients such as walnuts to serve as a meat replacement. “Walnuts provide such a silky, smooth texture, along with the great health benefits and fat content,” says Grant Morgan, culinary and beverage director. A February 2019 WTF combined walnuts with chickpeas to make a vegetarian chorizo that was then topped in a taco with napa slaw, avocado relish, and queso fresco.

    Pinky Cole of Slutty Vegan, which has one brick-and-mortar location and a food truck in Atlanta, sees vegan food utilizing more fresh ingredients in recipes. For example, she’s been working on menu items that involve squash spaghetti to freshen up the brand’s offerings.


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    What Slutty Vegan has mastered, however, is the art of making vegan food craveable in its mimicking of favorite quick-serve items like burgers and fries. “Our menu is comprised of exciting nuances on old favorites,” Cole says. Favorite items include the One Night Stand burger, which is stacked with the Impossible Burger and vegan bacon, then topped with a special seasoning and sauce. There’s also the Hollywood Hooker Philly sandwich, combining Impossible vegan ground beef, caramelized onions, bell peppers, and special sauces on a vegan Hawaiian-style bun.

    “One of the largest challenges I’ve faced with plant-based proteins has been under-seasoning,” Cole says. That’s why most people associate veganism with blandness, she adds. Her solution was to create the brand’s signature Secret Slutty Sauce, while also employing herbs and seasonings.

    Slutty Vegan offers customers an energetic, nostalgia-inducing fast-food experience. “People stand in line for hours, not simply for the best burger they have ever had, but for the excitement and buzz around the experience,” she says.

    Along this same vein, Burger King created its own plant-based experience under its Whopper line in the Impossible Whopper, which it announced will go national this year. It features Impossible Foods’ popular plant-based patty, which is flame-grilled and topped with tomatoes, lettuce, mayonnaise, ketchup, pickles, and white onions on a toasted sesame seed bun. “The Impossible Whopper is all Whopper. No beef,” says Fernando Machado, global chief marketing officer.

    Another trend in the plant-based space is offering more menu options that are vegan- and vegetarian-first, instead of requiring those customers to heavily customize offerings that would otherwise feature meat and dairy products.

    A pioneer in this style of menu is Mexican fast casual Tocaya Organica, which has 13 locations on the West Coast. The menu base is vegan, with the option of adding chef-recommended proteins like the new Cilantro Lime Vegan Chicken and cheeses to each dish. The result is that non-meat eaters and meat eaters alike can enjoy a meal side by side and feel completely represented, says Tosh Berman, cofounder. Structuring the menu this way has also helped Tocaya capture a second group of customers: those who are health-, wellness-, and fitness-oriented and interested in food as clean fuel.

    Larger fast-casual brands are taking action as well. Chipotle began offering Vegan and Vegetarian Bowl recipes as a digital shortcut on its app and website to make ordering plant-based items more convenient. The Vegetarian Bowl features brown rice, pinto beans, fajita veggies, mild tomato salsa, corn salsa, sour cream, and guacamole, and the Vegan Bowl combines brown rice, black beans, the plant-based protein Sofritas, tomato salsa, corn salsa, and lettuce.

    “We are committed to ensuring that everyone can find food that fits their lifestyle at Chipotle,” says Michael Kotick, director of brand marketing. “While Chipotle was one of the first to offer 100 percent vegan-friendly options in the category, we are always looking for new, modern ways to bring vegan alternatives to the menu.” The brand also supports promising entrepreneurs in the plant-based space through the Chipotle Cultivate Foundation’s Aluminaries program; for example, one supported company is Sophie’s Kitchen, which is a vegan seafood startup.

    With small and large brands alike focusing on veggie-friendly fare, the plant-based protein segment is ripe for innovation. Expect restaurants to leverage the popular vegan-friendly brands of the day like Impossible Foods, Beyond Meat, and JUST Egg products, but also to create proprietary veggie-forward items that are well seasoned and inspired by global flavors.

    “We see vegan and plant-based foods becoming even more popular and approachable over the next few seasons,” says Samantha Wasser, CEO of plant-based chain by CHLOE, which has 14 locations. “We believe the demand for accessible plant-based options is only growing.”