How Plant-Based Menu Items Meet Demand and Drive Profits
Plant-based proteins—with more sustainable and healthier claims—are appearing on full-service plates not only due to guest demand, but because chefs are willing to part with animal proteins of the past to embrace experimentation in a plant-forward future.
“In restaurants now you’re seeing plant-based options on 10 to 15 percent of the menu, and within plant-based options you’re finding different proteins,” says Benjamin Goldman, chef de cuisine at Miami Beach, Florida’s Planta South Beach. “This is emerging in restaurants that may not have carried plant-based proteins because now guests are requesting them.”
Chefs say large portions of today’s population consume plant-based proteins—even if they’re not vegan or vegetarian—for health and environmental reasons, and restaurants that don’t embrace them may be left behind. “Plant-based proteins are selling, and chefs will be surprised by the amount of guests willing to try something different,” says Severin Nunn, director of food and beverage at The Omni Homestead Resort in Hot Springs, Virginia. These menu items also offer great profit margins. With meat, a restaurant’s food cost is around 30 percent, compared to 15 percent for plant-based entrees. “You can lower the price point while increasing your margins,” Nunn says.
There’s a growing segment of consumers that come to restaurants to eat nutritionally dense, plant-based meals, says Bradford Heap, chef/owner of SALT and Wild Standard in Boulder, Colorado, as well as the former Colterra Food and Wine in Niwot, Colorado. At SALT, he says, plant-based dishes make up about 30 percent of sales.
“If we make plant-based proteins with the same amount of attention as animal proteins, the whole plant-based protein sector will move forward,” says Justin Cucci, chef/owner of Denver, Colorado’s Edible Beats Restaurant Group.
The most promising up-and-coming ingredients in this plant-based category are quinoa, lentils, and spirulina, while all eyes are on brands like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat.
“Five years ago, you didn’t see quinoa on menus” says Lisa Dahl, owner/executive chef of Dahl Restaurant Group in Sedona, Arizona, who uses quinoa, legumes, ground walnuts, and vegetables to create a veggie burger that is flavorful and contains a complete protein serving.
Heap at SALT utilizes quinoa in his best-selling Organic Power Bowl, with 18 different organic ingredients including kale, spinach, chickpeas, and seasonal fruits and vegetables. In addition, his quinoa chickpea burger also sells like crazy at dinner, he says.
“Quinoa is growing and more chefs are using techniques to showcase its versatility. It’s now a dish focus point,” says Nunn at The Omni Homestead Resort, where he crafts quinoa and edamame croquettes.
Cucci at Edible Beats uses black quinoa in his risotto for color, flavor, and texture, to decrease carbs and increase protein, also to create a more nutritional, intriguing, and dimensional dish.
Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat are making a footprint because the brands’ plant-based products like burgers and sausages are consumer-friendly, nostalgic, and familiar, Goldman of Planta says. “They’re beneficial for the body, mind, and environment, so they’re becoming increasingly popular.”
Mickey Neely, executive chef at The Moonlighter in Chicago whose plant-based options account for 20 percent of total food sales, says because the texture and feel have come so far, these products are selling. “The Beyond Sausage snaps so well, it’s—lights out—one of the best products,” he says. Neely also cooks Beyond Burger meat with house-made taco seasoning until crumbly to make The Moonlighter’s deep-fried tacos.
Lentils are trending, too, due to their versatility and ability to ramp up protein. Dahl at Dahl Restaurant Group uses lentils to craft a croquette appetizer over making something traditional like meatballs. Goldman uses them in his veggie burger and farro sausage. And Cucci sprinkles lentils in salads to provide protein and complex carbs.
Spirulina, a bacterium that forms in the warm alkaline lakes of Africa and Central and South America, has been growing in popularity due to its health benefits. “Spirulina contains 71 percent complete proteins compared to beef at 22 percent, so it’s up to chefs to figure out ways to incorporate that into dishes to create more nutrient-dense, satisfying meals,” Nunn says. “With spirulina, I do a version of tuna tartare where I coat compressed watermelon in spirulina for a sea flavor and then add a crunch with a rice tuile. When you look at it, it’s almost like tuna and it tastes like it, but it wows guests. They don’t always know it’s a plant-based protein dish.”
According to the Rethinking Meatless report by taste and nutrition company Kerry, plant-based menu items have increased 800 percent over four years. Chefs don’t see that trend slowing down anytime soon.
- Keen on Quinoa: Quinoa does well on fullservice menus, because it’s recognizable and adds color, flavor, texture, and protein to everything from veggie burgers to croquettes, risotto, and power bowls.
- Impossible and Beyond: Texturized plant proteins like those from Impossible Foods and Beyond Meats have come a long way. Diners today feel like they’re eating nostalgic burgers, sausages, and tacos.
- Leveling Up with Lentils: With their ability to fit in many different types of dishes while increasing protein content, lentils are finding a place in salads, croquettes, and plantbased meats.
- Sprinkle of Spirulina: With more than three times the complete proteins than beef, spirulina is making its way into a variety of dishes.