Special Report | March 2017 | By Maggie Hennessy

A Plant-Based Future for Foodservice

These merging plant-based food trends could have an enormous impact on the limited-service industry.
Shouk, a Washington, D.C., fast casual that opened last year, offers a Middle Eastern twist to plant-based foods. shouk / www.ShootJoeC.com
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We’ve reached an era when meatless eating is no longer limited to Mondays. When a charred whole cauliflower can turn as many heads in a dining room as a sizzling, bone-in rib eye. When a growing slice of consumers at the table have at least some idea of the carbon footprint required to produce both of those dishes.

As more consumers embrace the craveability and potential health and sustainability benefits of plant-heavy eating, limited-service chains are taking on the unique challenges of being more veg-focused—from finding innovative and inclusive ways to menu more veggies to elevating standards for freshness and sourcing.

Those still unconvinced that veggies are trending need only look at some of the past year’s hottest restaurant openings. In New York’s East Village, other-worldly fine-dining vegan spot Avant Garden takes diners down a rabbit hole to a world of scorched cauliflower, smoked mushrooms, and carrot romesco. Chicago’s cheekily named Bad Hunter shifts vegetables to the forefront and meat to a supporting-actor role via dishes like beet tartare infused with white anchovies and butter dumplings with corn, shiitake, and oyster kimchi. And Los Angeles’ eco-chic PYT similarly doesn’t banish meat altogether, though veggies get the cleverest treatment, as in the salt-baked turnip wrapped in hoja santa with shiso chimichurri.

Plants have invaded the mass market, too—not just in the form of more veg-forward fast-casual restaurants, but also in notable investments from Silicon Valley bigwigs in next-gen mock-meat manufacturers like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat. Though health woes could be a contributing factor—owing to headlines like the World Health Organization’s recent warning that red and processed meats likely are contributors to cancer—the mainstreaming of plant-based diets seems to be linked to a deeper generational shift in eating habits.

Over the past decade, consumers under age 40 have upped their fresh vegetable intake by 52 percent and frozen by 59 percent, compared with those aged 60 and up, who’ve decreased fresh vegetable consumption by 30 percent and frozen by 4 percent over the same period, according to The NPD Group. This indicates that millennials and members of Generation Z are adopting “fresh” at an early age and are likely to sustain it over time. Indeed, fresh vegetable consumption is expected to increase another 10 percent over the next several years, per NPD.

The impact these merging trends could have on the limited-service industry, meanwhile, could be enormous—and operators ahead of the curve could stand to gain the most.

Veggies as cultural currency

Washington, D.C.’s highly educated and young population (the average age being 34) was among the factors that drew Ran Nussbächer to open his mission-based, vegan quick-service restaurant, Shouk, there last year. But you won’t see “sustainable” or “vegan” in this Middle Eastern hotspot’s tagline. It’s instead packed with descriptors like “modern,” “comfort food,” and “assault on all five senses.”

“I saw an opportunity to recalibrate what people think of when they think of eating plants,” Nussbächer says. “But we’re not labeled or branded as a vegan concept, and we’re not here to do plant-based alternatives to chicken wings. We’re trying to create something with its own identity that tastes good, coupled with a cool vibe that brings people in again and again.”

Of the hundreds of customers lining up at Shouk each day for pita stuffed with cauliflower and tahini or fennel and pistachio pesto, lentil- and mushroom-based burgers, and cashew labneh, only about 10 percent are vegetarian or vegan, he says. The brand aims to foster appreciation and curiosity for the diverse, flavorful range of veg-based possibilities by keeping ingredients true to their original form—pan-frying or roasting them in chunks to bring out complex, even meaty, flavors, and perfuming them with Middle Eastern spices like za’atar and sumac, which customers can also purchase from a small retail rack in the restaurant.

Salad chain Chopt Creative Salad Co. takes a similar approach to fostering enthusiasm for vegetables, through efforts like a rotating LTO menu of “destination salads.” Inspired by the growing connection between food and travel, as documented in the pages of Saveur magazine, on Anthony Bourdain’s travel shows, and even on Instagram, destination salads educate diners about a particular region through salads and other plant-forward dishes that highlight star ingredients or cooking techniques.

“We approach the destination bowls with the excitement of somebody who reads food and travel magazines—somebody who wants to chase down a certain sauce on a website,” says Tony Shure, cofounder of the New York–based chain. “It’s almost a currency in this day and age to know about the latest vegetable or grain. There’s this real cross-pollination of ideas and images, and vegetables are at the center of that.”

Veggie-positive thinking

Indeed, as veg-focused chains look to work their way into people’s everyday eating routines, the focus becomes more about encouraging incremental lifestyle changes than sacrificing beloved indulgences.

Los Angeles–based Greenleaf Gourmet Chopshop offers a mix of veg-focused and healthy protein-centric dishes like specialty salads, grain bowls, and seared salmon with beet-carrot purée. But it also offers a few of what chef and owner Jon Rollo calls “gateway items”—like Buffalo “wangs” salad with lite blue cheese dressing and a grass-fed beef burger with arugula salad—that gently coax customers into incorporating more veggies.

“We’ve been pushing produce-heavy meals since we opened eight years ago, but we also have a lot of items for people who wouldn’t feel comfortable ordering a totally vegetarian or vegan dish as a first-impression item,” Rollo says. “These gateway items let people experiment a little. If they love it, they may be willing to let us lead them to the next item, since we’ve gained their trust.”

Steve Heeley, CEO of Santa Monica, California–based vegan fast casual Veggie Grill, also champions a more inclusive approach, particularly since 80 percent of the chain’s customers aren’t vegan or vegetarian and “might still associate the word vegan with steamed broccoli and plain brown rice,” he says.

The brand instead describes itself as “veggie positive,” which means that whether the customer is flextarian, pescetarian, vegan, or just wanting to eat veggies a couple more days a week, there’s something for them at Veggie Grill.

“Most people don’t grow up vegan or vegetarian; they grow up eating meat,” Heeley says. “And some of those familiar flavors they crave are very difficult to replicate at home without adding a lot of stuff that’s not healthy. That’s why we try to have broad range of offerings—our core guests are highly frequent, and we want to give that variety so they don’t get bored.”

The company thus starts with flavor trends or popular dishes and works backward, engineering the components to be plant-based. So when, for example, Nashville hot chicken started trending across the country, Veggie Grill reverse-engineered a leaner, plant-based version of spicy fried “chickin’” with cauliflower-potato mash, collard greens, corn cakes, and porcini mushroom gravy.

At any given time, Veggie Grill has up to 20 dishes like the spicy fried chickin’ in the pipeline. Each item is on a three- or four-month cycle from idea to rollout, since it typically goes through 20 iterations before appearing on the menu. “Our approach is very iterative; if it’s not craveable, it doesn’t go on the menu,” Heeley says.

The two-pronged approach

Veggie Grill’s decision to feature some manufactured alternative proteins demonstrates a fork in the road toward mainstreaming plant-focused eating. Some chains are getting back to basics as more consumers embrace veggies in their true form, while others are betting on mock-meat products appealing to a wider audience.

The veggie burger—which has already come a long way from its hockey puck–like origins—is something of a microcosm of this debate. Nowadays, chains like Shouk are creating from-scratch versions starring “whole ingredients you can see,” like chickpeas, black beans, lentils, and chunks of mushrooms all bound with flaxseed, Nussbächer says. The burger has quickly become Shouk’s bestseller and was named the Washington Post’s favorite veggie burger in D.C.

Others, like Veggie Grill, are buying into increasingly convincing meat analogue products that also meet higher standards for quality. The chain recently rolled out Beyond Meat’s high-tech Beyond Burger system-wide with its seasonal Winter Menu. It’s a product that is derived mainly from pea protein and is non-GMO, soy-free, and made without heavily processed ingredients. (It’s also the first-ever plant-based burger to be sold in Whole Foods’ meat department.)

“When those products come to market, it’s really exciting, because then folks who love the flavor of a burger can now have one that really tastes like meat, looks like meat, and cooks like meat,” Heeley says. “It breaks down a lot of barriers.”

Still, he admits that there’s always some processing and “a certain amount of embedded sodium for flavor” in mock meat, which raises eyebrows among consumers looking to get away from high sodium levels and hard-to-pronounce ingredient lists.

On the other hand, Chopt is opening itself up to both the food-science and back-to-basics approaches to plants via a recent partnership with Google. Chopt launched so-called veggie labs at the tech giant’s Mountain View, California, and New York campuses to test the marketability of plant-based items in various formats, and they’re proving hugely popular with employees. The labs serve everything from simple roasted veggies to “ceviche,” fermented, and soft-serve options, then gather employee feedback with the goal of eventually applying it to Chopt’s menu.

A recent successful test at the New York kiosk involved replicating a gyro with za’atar roasted eggplant and beet “steaks,” while keeping the remaining components the same. “That notion of giving people something familiar but with an innovative twist has really appealed to Googlers,” says Catherine Lederer, vice president of food and beverage at Chopt.

It’s all in the name of progress.

“For us, it’s not just about opening more restaurants—we’d like to change some practices as well,” Shure says. “When we started in 1998, iceberg lettuce was our biggest seller. Now iceberg is no longer on the menu. It’s been replaced by kale, which farmers are growing countless varieties of as they’ve seen demand rise. So it’s about this idea that you can change tastes, and by changing tastes, you can change demand, which then changes supply and the factors that go into supply. That’s what we’re chasing.”

Growing partnerships

But you can’t change tastes without treating produce with the same care and attention as meat. For one thing, there’s little margin for error when the bulk of a dish uses ingredients expected to be at their crisp, bright peak of freshness. Veggie Grill keeps diligent tabs on production to prevent waste and maintains very strict and often short shelf lives on ingredients—some daily and others by the shift.

Greenleaf similarly keeps a close eye on ordering, labeling, and storage. “We have very small back-of-house storage and really small coolers, because there’s zero room for error in our treatment of ingredients,” Rollo says. “People’s quality expectations have gotten too high.”

But quality assurance also backs up to good sourcing, which Rollo says is a challenge whether you’re a startup or multiunit legacy chain. “If you’re small and starting out, finding the right farmers and vendors is really difficult—getting them to pay attention to you is hard,” he says. “Then, as you grow, you learn it’s hard to replicate the quality of great individual farmers you have found if you outgrow their ability to produce enough.”

That’s where establishing early partnerships with farms can sow long-term benefits. Greenleaf partnered with Oxnard, California–based Scarborough Farms in 2008, when it opened its first restaurant. Scarborough was only supplying high-end restaurants at the time, but has since expanded to two locations and counts fast-casual chains like Mendocino Farms and Tender Greens among its customers. Still, it’s not without challenges.

“We’ve gotten calls in the middle of the week that there was a frost last night and they lost half of the mixed-greens crop,” Rollo says. “That’s the nature of the business.”

Chopt is similarly no stranger to last-minute greens swap-outs when Mother Nature has intervened. The chain tries to communicate its needs a year out so farmers can plant accordingly. It also introduces its small farmer partners to its distribution network, which in turn gives them access to other customers to grow their business outside Chopt.

Indeed, growing together with farms isn’t just about mitigating disasters; it creates a stronger connection to the ingredients and those growing them, making each side more accountable to the other and, ultimately, improving what’s on the plate.

“We’ve had some great farmers and vendors who we’ve grown with and have, in turn, helped us understand the product better and how to treat it and utilize it better,” Shure says. “We’ve developed a refrigeration system throughout transport to better maintain the overall quality of lettuces and greens. Little tweaks like that make quality of the product better.”

This story originally appeared in QSR's March 2017 issue with the title "Taking Root."