Speaking to FoodNavigator-USA as the GFI released its third annual restaurant scorecard, GFI foodservice and supply chain manager Zak Weston said all the leading chains are closely monitoring the plant-based trend, although some still have concerns about pricing, supply chain issues, space constraints and demand (if you have a limited menu and food preparation space, each menu item must carry its weight).
“A lot of chains are taking a wait and see approach, and they are asking, is this a short-term fad or a long-term trend?”
However, the success of the plant-based Impossible Whopper at Burger King nationwide had proved that plant-based meat could reach a mainstream audience, attracting new guests, raising average checks, and delivering incremental growth, he said. While sales have leveled off slightly, settling at 28 Impossible Whoppers per outlet per day vs early highs of 32, this was to be expected, he added:
“That’s about 10% of all Whoppers sold, so that’s incredible for something that’s been on the menu for less than a year.
“They have seen incredible results. The Impossible Whopper drove 5% of their comparable sales growth in the third quarter and it’s understandable sales have slowed down. Popeyes Chicken Sandwich isn’t selling as well now as it was at the height of the hype; it’s the same with any big launch.”
Brands in the plant-based meat set
Many chains have opted to partner with high-profile brands such as Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, but moving forward, we can expect to see a broader array of brands and options, he predicted.
“We’re seeing a lot more companies jumping into this market now. Nestlé has teamed up with Ruby Tuesday, Morningstar Farms [Kellogg] is working with Pizza Hut, and Lightlife is working with Dave & Buster's.
"A lot of the major meat companies also have longstanding relationships in the foodservice industry and they are jumping into plant-based or blended products, from Tyson and Hormel to Perdue and Smithfield.”
“Consumers like plant-based entrées, but they prefer that those entrées not be conspicuously identified as vegetarian… Consumers will also order more plant-based entrées if they believe they are a good source of protein.”
Good Food Institute
‘There’s no one way to do plant-based’
Whether restaurants should focus on providing plant-based versions of the top-selling meat dishes, (burgers, tacos, burritos) or whether they should focus on ethnic dishes that happen to be vegan (chickpea curry) or develop new dishes that are a little more adventurous (superfood bowls, jackfruit tacos, sausage & harissa cauliflower, cashew cheese boards) depends on the clientele, he said.
“Some chains have really focused on healthy plant-based options with whole foods, whereas others are focused on providing taste and indulgence and giving consumers a really good burger experience.
"The lesson this year is that there’s no one way to do plant-based.
“Yes, 2019 was a huge year for plant-based burgers but plant-based is definitely becoming bigger than burgers; probably the fastest gaining area was Mexican foods. You saw Impossible launch at Qdoba, Del Taco releasing a ton of Beyond Meat items, Chipotle and Taco Bell promoting their plant-based items. Plus we’ve had a lot of new launches in breakfast foods such as Dunkin' [which has partnered with Beyond Meat] and Italian dishes such as pizza, meatballs, sausages.”
‘I expect 2020 to be the year when plant-based eggs achieve mainstream status’
Weston, who was speaking as Eat JUST Inc announced a partnership with foodservice giant Sodexo to bring its plant-based JUST Egg to Sodexo’s higher education, healthcare and corporate sites across the US, said: “More chains are focusing on breakfast as a growth area, so having a plant-based egg in a breakfast burrito or sandwich is a great way to tap into that.
“I definitely expect 2020 to be the year when plant-based eggs achieve mainstream status. It also creates opportunities for plant-based bacon.”
“JUST Egg products are nearly indistinguishable from their ‘real’ counterparts – they taste like eggs, cook like eggs and can bake like eggs. We’ve done a considerable amount of recipe development for our North America customers and will be working with JUST Egg on the next wave of Sustainable Diets innovation for sure.” Rob Morasco, senior director culinary development, Sodexo
Plant-based seafood a slower burn
Plant-based seafood is still pretty small relative to other areas, said Weston: “We are really bullish in the long run, but some of the larger seafood chains have expressed that they are not interested right now in doing plant-based seafood. I think there could be some launches this year but I don’t think they will get as much attention as other areas.”
While there are obvious sustainability benefits to plant-based seafood, coupled with safety benefits (no heavy metals, plastics etc), Americans are currently more focused on cutting red meat consumption than fish, which is considered healthy, he said, while product development is also more advanced when it comes to plant-based beef and chicken alternatives vs seafood.
“However, there are a few [plant-based] companies that are getting really close to matching the sensory qualities [of seafood].”
Marketing plant-based menu items: Integrate in core menus, emphasize protein
As for marketing plant-based menu items, the key is presenting them as mainstream and delicious, rather than pigeonholing them in a separate, carved-out section of the menu targeting diners on special diets, said Weston, who said studies have shown that when plant-based entrées are moved from a ‘vegetarian’ section of a menu into the general menu, sales more than double.
The GFI also advises restaurants to use the word ‘protein’ in their descriptions of plant-based entrees, as research suggests that 50% of consumers are looking for protein in every meal, and sometimes worry that a plant-based option will not deliver on that front.
By extending their core branding to plant-based products (The Beyond Famous Star Burger; the Impossible Whopper), chains such as Carl’s Jr and Burger King are also conditioning consumers to expect these products to deliver on taste, said Weston.
“That communicates to consumers that these products are going to deliver the same delicious exciting indulgent experience they have come to expect from their restaurants, and that’s a huge marketing lesson for other chains.”
The GFI Good Food Scorecard
The GFI Good Food Scorecard – now in its third year – assesses the performance of the top 100 restaurant chains in the US based on the NRN's (Nation’s Restaurant News) proprietary ranking of the largest restaurant chains (which account for around a third of US restaurant sales) when it comes to plant-based credentials.
Points were given based on the number of plant-based entrées, as well as how those entrées were marketed to appeal to a mainstream audience.
Burger King, Carl's Jr., Hardee's, and Panda Express have added plant-based items to their menus over the past 12 months, with Del Taco, Qdoba Mexican Eats, Red Robin, and Yard House adding additional items to their existing plant-based offerings, says the GFI.
"Del Taco was recognized for adding multiple Beyond Meat items to its menu in 2019 and for heavily advertising these offerings to meat-lovers, vegetarians, and vegans alike. Qdoba Mexican Eats’ nation-wide Impossible Foods launch in 2019 made it a standout, with the restaurant chain allowing customers to add Impossible Foods’ plant-based meat to any of its core dishes."
Yard House was also recognized for its ten plant-based dishes that feature Gardein’s plant-based chicken.
Get more details on the scorecard HERE.