While my esteemed QSR colleagues turn their attentions this month to more traditional proteins, I thought I’d venture off the beaten path a bit to talk about some alternatives that are gaining traction with chefs and consumers.

Our Western tendency to think of protein in terms of animals with fur, fins, or feathers is natural enough, given our history of viewing beasts as a primary source of nourishment. Concepts ranging from Morton’s and Ruth’s Chris to El Pollo Loco and Long John Silver’s would be hard-pressed to build their menus around anything other than their signature fish and fleshes.

But at a time when the number of consumers, particularly younger ones, are eschewing meat and chewing more legumes, grains, and roots to get their requisite daily protein intake, it’s worth considering how quick-serve and fast-casual chains might tap into a growing taste for these alternatives.

Estimates vary on the number of U.S. adults who consider themselves vegan or vegetarian. In August 2011, USA Today reported the Vegetarian Resource Group’s finding that about 3 percent of U.S. adults are considered vegetarians, because they never eat meat, poultry, fish, or seafood, and about 1 percent are vegans because they also forgo dairy, eggs, and honey. But the editor of the Vegetarian Times took a more bullish view, telling the paper that, “A much larger number of people—22 million, based on a poll the magazine did in 2008—are … vegetarian-inclined. These are the people who might have the occasional chicken or fish. They’re interested in vegetarianism and moving in a veg direction, but they aren’t all the way there yet.”

“At one time, consumers who steered away from steer were seen as an impossibly tiny niche, it’s now clear they’re a growing consumer group.”  

It’s the latter category, “flexitarians,” who may just tip the scales for traditional chains. Whereas at one time consumers who steered away from steer were seen as an impossibly tiny niche, it’s now clear that they represent a significant and growing consumer subgroup. And I’d argue that they warrant our attention. As a starting point, I recommend three distinct approaches for menu developers: Expand. Explore. Execute.

1. Expand The fact that various beans, roots, legumes, and other alternative protein sources have long been staples of Mediterranean, Asian, and Latin American cuisines means these regions’ culinary cultures offer a vast, untapped vein of possibilities. So expand your ethnic horizons and dig in.

Take a look at the Middle East and such exquisite concoctions as falafel and hummus, both derived from high-protein chickpeas. Consider the ways in which yogurt-based sauces such as tzatziki and fresh cheeses take center stage on many Mediterranean plates.

Think about the way Latin American cultures use the combination of beans and rice to create complete proteins. And contemplate the creative uses of soy in Asian cuisines, from fried tofu to fermented tempeh and miso.  

The likelihood that any or even many of these offerings would find a place on a fast food menu may be slim, at least in the near-term, but the broad range of options just within this handful of examples should provide a sense of the possibilities chains could explore as they consider adding alternative proteins to their menus.

2. Explore The idea that a protein course must be the center of the plate is a distinctly Western notion. Legumes, rice and bean combinations, nuts, seeds, and other proteins can work just as well as when used as complements, sides, add-ons, and accents. Who says eggs must be served alone on a plate, or as the central component of a breakfast sandwich, when other applications (rarely tried in quick-serve or fast-casual settings) can be equally enticing?  

Think: quiches, tortes, savory custards, and coatings, for starters. Too often, we’re hidebound by tradition, and this is particularly so when it comes to proteins. I don’t know that nut butters, nut milks, fava beans, whey protein, or vegan cheesecakes made from cashews have a place in large, multiunit concepts; I only know that these foods are of considerable interest to an increasing number of consumers. And that makes them worth evaluating.

3. Execute … Flawlessly While I always encourage my culinary colleagues to be expansive in their thinking and creative in their explorations, I also emphasize that execution is always the foundation of successful menu development. Taste is and has always been the primary driver of consumer behavior, and it should always guide our various experiments with alternative proteins.

A terrific veggie burger—really, there are such things—such as the one served at The Plant Café Organic in San Francisco is delicious precisely because its ingredient combination delivers the kind of intense flavor, juiciness, satisfying texture, and rich mouthfeel (known as umami) we seek from meat. But it does so using lentils, mushrooms, beets, cashews, bulgur, and roasted onion.

Executive chef Sascha Weiss puts flavor first, and the proof is in the patty. That absolute dedication to taste is a must for any menu developer considering a leap into the alternative-protein fray.

We’re a long way from a future in which nonmeat proteins are every customer’s order of the day, but that doesn’t mean quick-serve and fast-casual operators should underestimate the potential of creative and flawlessly executed alternative protein dishes. So expand, explore, and execute, friends.

And if you have some terrific successes to share, please let me know at marc@qsrmagazine.com.

Marc Halperin: Resident F&B Expert, Story