The explosive buzz around plant-based and plant-centric diets has opened seemingly endless opportunity for new brands and product innovation. It's a trickier trend, though, for foodservice operators to navigate. Redesigning menus is no small undertaking. Businesses also need to plan menu options that will meet not only the health priorities of consumers, but their in-the-moment cravings, and the two don't always coincide.
A new Culinary Institute of America-sponsored report from the market research firm Datassential, “Shifting the Protein Focus,” has identified some opportunities and tips for operators to try to seize the plant-based diet market opportunity while improving consumer health and perhaps also cutting costs.
A key finding in the report, which is the result of surveying 634 operators and 1,013 consumers, showed that customers want reduced animal protein portions—or alternative protein sources—more than operators are providing them. That means there’s huge opportunity to expand alternative protein options—as long as it’s done in a savvy way.
“Consumers have definitely started looking for alternatives, whether it's on a regular basis or a limited basis like Meatless Monday,” said Maeve Webster, Datassential senior director. “Operators have been slower to keep up with the changes in consumer behavior.”
Many operators (likely more on the conventional side than in the natural channel) reported being likely to drop animal-free or meat-free ingredients, such as nut butters and flours, Greek yogurt and tofu, than they are likely to add or increase their use of these items over the next two years—but that’s not because falling consumer interest. In fact, demand is expected to outpace the options that operators supply them with. It’s because, at least in many cases, businesses tried to jump at an opportunity too soon, and before they were ready.
Webster said that’s not uncommon. “There is so much pressure to stay on trend now in food service that you get a lot of operators jumping on trends way too soon,” she said. “So you do see a lot of fluctuation early on.”
Until food operators figure out a way to close that gap, the report suggests that consumers will turn to retail to fulfill their needs, potentially stealing traffic from the away-from-home sector. There’s some hope for the natural and organic industry, though. While the report didn’t survey enough natural or organic operators to perform a specific analysis of this sector, it’s clear that because these natural retailers are dedicated to the very issues that are driving the larger interest in animal-free products, they both have the advantage of expertise and trust from consumers, and may be able to divert some of the traffic that retail might otherwise gain.
Considering the fluctuating cost of animal protein—which 46 percent of operators cite as a key menu challenge to begin with—it should be a no-brainer for operators generally to find ways to simply use less animal protein. It's what many consumers want anyway (provided menu changes are communicated effectively, and more on that in a minute), and it can help mitigate the challenges posed by price fluctuation.
Another crucial takeaway from the report: communication is key. Operators reported that menu or portion changes were most successful when they were explained to consumers; changes that were made quietly were met with more resistance. Naming menu options with the descriptors “topped with” or “served with” were effective ways of communicating meals with smaller portions of animal protein.