On this day, October 1, 2015, meatless-Monday advocates get to step out of the box and celebrate how far vegetable-forward cuisine has come with the celebration of World Vegetarian Day.
The celebrants won’t just be those who ascribe to elimination diets though. Finding itself at the confluence of multiple consumer and industry trends, the once humble vegetable is taking center stage in dishes across a myriad of cuisines and concepts.
Director of global consumer strategy-wellness from the branding solutions firm Daymon Worldwide, Nicole Peranick, says that this recent Millennial-fueled shift doesn’t spell the end of meat, but rather a creative re-imaging of center-of-the-plate options. “Fundamentally, I think we’re seeing that protein is being redefined in general as there’s been a heightened focus around food sustainability and food waste becoming top of mind not only to consumers, but also the industry at large,” she says.
This is good news for many operators who are looking to cut down on cost of goods without sacrificing quality and completeness on the menu. Vegetables are also easily utilized from “root-to-stem,” ensuring that there’s little waste in the process. What’s carrying these vegetables from side-dish to main draw though is not only consumer demand, but also newly applied cooking methods giving vegetables a more “meaty” preparation, from salt block- and ash-grilling to ember-roasting and Applewood-smoking.
This expanded view of veggies is leading to inspired dishes such as tomato carpaccio, cauliflower steak, and rotisserie beets on menus across the country. This year especially has seen a rise in veg-centric dishes on the market, such as seasoned tofu sofritas at Chipotle and Shake Shack and Blue Hill’s limited-time wastED burger, which utilized discarded juice pulp to craft a limited number a beet-purple burgers.
The ingenuity and sustainability implied by these new dishes hits on the growing consumer interest in brands and restaurants that use food as a vehicle for some higher aim. “Now, missions matter,” Peranick says. “Social responsibility and social good is very important, and we’re continuously seeing the evolution of that as consumers are looking for things from sustainable packaging to fair trade products.”
Not only are veggies edging out meats, they’re also becoming a popular replacement for more traditional starches, with grated cauliflower taking the place of rice and zucchini taking the place of linguine. Vegetables also figure heavily into increasingly popular global cuisines from the Middle East and Asia.
Apart from menu innovation, Peranick says there is also an opportunity to capitalize on newly imagined services like chopped- and prepared-to-order vegetable butchery.
As operators take the day to consider where veg-forward dishes can find a niche on their restaurant’s menu, Peranick advises that new dishes meet the 80-20 rule: options should be 80 percent approachable and 20 percent innovative.
“There’s a lot to be gained by introducing an element of newness through this veg-centric cooking, but there always has to be a consideration for the relevance in your local market,” she says. “You can give your food this modern twist while still making it approachable to your target customer.”
So today, don’t just harass your hippie aunt. Take this opportunity to experiment with creative ways to step-up your vegetable game in a way that even your most meat-loving customers won’t find lacking.