If last year’s Menus of Change emphasized a need to shift away from meat-based menus, this year’s conference extolled the business advantages associated with such a shift.
“In America, we are much better at capitalism than prohibition,” said Culinary Institute of America (CIA) president Tim Ryan in his welcome address. Ryan cited consumer aversion to banning soda beverages as an example; he explained that lasting change would occur when businesses found an economically sound way to offer healthier options.
“We have to help them innovate and do what it takes to save the environment … to be healthier,” Ryan added.
This mission, which walks a tightrope between healthy, eco-friendly, and profitable, saw some mixed results in the past year: red meat consumption continued to decline in the U.S., but it increased in developing nations; Congress declared the nutritionally ambiguous potato to be a vegetable; and last year’s “it” ingredients, kale and Brussels sprouts, trickled down to the mainstream.
In his opening keynote presentation, Ron Shaich, CEO, founder, and chairman of Panera Bread, exemplified how a restaurant chain with more than 2,000 locations could deliver on the promise of health-conscious, sustainable fare. Eleven years ago, the company decided to source antibiotic-free chicken, although critics—including members of Panera’s board—considered the move to be “crazy,” as Shaich said. The company did pay more at first, but soon Shaich said that customer letters and foot traffic confirmed that the change better aligned Panera’s business strategy with its values.
“Do we not want to feed our guests the same food we want for ourselves and our children?” Shaich asked. Panera hopes to lead the pack again with the introduction of its “No No List” of artificial ingredients and additives. Shortly after the announcement, other brands like Noodles and Company, Taco Bell, and Subway have followed suit.
Franklin Becker, chef and owner of full-service concept The Little Beet Table and fast casual The Little Beet, echoed this sentiment—even though his restaurants eschew Panera’s veritable bread-and-butter system by serving only gluten-free menu items.
Becker said that to earn and maintain customer loyalty, restaurants must stay true to their values even if it hurts the bottom line. For example, when a millet supplier compromised its gluten-free status by mixing in wheat, Becker removed the corresponding dish from the menu.
After all, he said, all food should be “guilten” free, meaning consumers feel good about what they’re eating.
By Nicole Duncan