Is it time to start planting the seed for more plant-based menu options?

26th June 2020

Undoubtedly we are living in a challenging time for food-service businesses, but one thing that looks certain as we come out of lockdown is that customers will continue to want to make food choices that consider their personal health and the health of the planet.

If your food-service business isn’t catering well for customers wanting plant-based, healthier & / or allergen-free dishes, then chances are your competitors are, and you may be missing out on a large number of loyal customers.

As you review your menu for the post lockdown opening, to account for potentially reduced customer numbers due to social distancing measures, and other cost factor considerations such as increased cost of food, additional measures you may have adopted for health & safety, this presents a great opportunity to consider the dishes you do have available for those customers with specific dietary requirements.

But you may be wondering what percentage of customers actually do have specific dietary requirements, and is it worth your while to create specific dishes for them? The answer to that is a resounding yes from our research.

Veganism has increased by 360% in a decade, and whilst not every customer is completely cutting out meat & dairy, many are looking to reduce their intake for environmental, health or ethical reasons, with 1 in 3 meals in the home now completely veg based. And Allergy UK estimates 45% of UK consumers have a food allergy or intolerance.

For foodservice businesses to succeed, it’s no longer a ‘nice to have’ to consider catering for these customers, it’s now become a necessity, so they can stand out from competitors, and welcome more customers

A recent Vegan Society survey (of 3,600 consumers) found 21.5% of 18-64-year-olds in the UK had cut down their meat consumption since lockdown began.

Of these consumers, 41% did this because they could not buy their preferred animal products in shops and 43% said it was for health, environmental or ethical reasons. Some 19% said they would continue to buy plant-based alternatives after lockdown.

Even before lockdown, the rise of the flexitarian consumer was noticeable. One-third of all meals in the home were meatless, and numerous high street chains introduced plant-based alternatives to their menus to cater to the growing demand.

With this in mind, we have put together 10 things for businesses to consider when it comes to catering for flexitarian customers, and those with other specific dietary needs:

Health

Fears surrounding COVID-19 have shone a spotlight on concerns surrounding the need for strong immunity, heart health and managing excess weight.

A CGA survey in April showed many consumers exercising more frequently, ceasing to buy unhealthy takeaways, buying more healthy food and cutting down on alcohol.

Keep in mind that just because a food product is labelled as plant-based, it does not necessarily mean it is healthy, so catering for customers wanting healthy, plant-based dishes is not as simple as just introducing some of the myriad of new plant-based ‘meats’ to your menu. Savvy consumers will be interested in products with ‘clean labels’, without overly processed ingredients.

In the past, the motivation for consumers seeking plant-based products was to avoid animal products. Now, they are considering what is included. For example, they are looking for functional health benefits such as pre or probiotics, fibre, protein, fermented foods, whilst still wanting as natural a product as possible.

So your plant-based options should use as natural ingredients as possible, it’s better to make your own exciting creations than jump on the latest products.

Allergens

Many plant-based products are made with ingredients such as wheat, gluten, tofu, soybeans, and nuts. These are all allergens, so this is another important reason to avoid just adopting pre-made plant-based products on your menu, as otherwise, you will end up with foods that many customers need to avoid. Either create your own allergen-free versions, or stock a variety of products that provide options to your customers, regardless of their dietary needs, and look for emerging allergen-free plant-based products made with ingredients such as sunflower seeds, hemp, or chickpea, for example.

Variety

Plant-based patties are one of the most popular products in the meat alternative market, due to the ever-increasing number of producers emerging with their plant-based versions. But don’t just limit your plant-based range to burgers, and sausages. Consider the increasing number of more innovative ingredients that you can use such as veg based flours, pasta and dairy-free cheese alternatives. And don’t forget drinks – for example, more and more wine producers are increasing their range of vegan wines.

Sustainability & Provenance

Customer trust in where and how a dish has been made and packaged has become just as important a consideration as taste. It is not just the environmental concerns related to raising animals and animal suffering that have resulted in consumers opting for non-animal protein sources, and you should consider other sustainability factors such as fair trade, locality and even seasonality of product ingredients, and promote these on your menu.

Dairy-free

Dairy-free has been the fastest-growing category in the ‘free-from’ product ranges since 2013, driven by those with allergens and intolerances, plus also animal welfare concerns and the rise in veganism.

The Vegan Society survey found 54% and 42% of those who had tried soy and almond dairy alternatives respectively for the first time in lockdown said they would buy them regularly once lockdown was lifted.

Consider using a variety of different dairy alternatives in your dishes, as they all have different flavours, consistency, fat content and protein structures, and so will act differently and taste different in your various dishes. Don’t forget to check what allergens each variety does carry too, as many contain soy and gluten.

Menu wording

How you talk about a dish on your menu, and where it is situated on the menu, is just as applicable to plant-based or allergen-free dishes as it is to any other dish.

Try to avoid signposting dishes under headings such as ‘alternatives’, or ‘free-from’, as this can put off customers, and could even mean customers won’t try a specific dish because of a pre-conceived bias.

Research shows that when menu items are talked about with what is in them, rather than what is not in them, they are more favourably received. For example “Silky smooth pannacotta with Italian coffee syrup and Sicilian almonds”, sounds much more appealing than a “vegan, dairy-free, gluten-free pannacotta”

Front of House staff knowledge

Make sure your staff are well-versed in talking to customers about what dishes are available for specific diets and can use confident language that not only sells the dishes as great options in a positive way but also helps make customers feel safe that they understand the ingredients in the dishes.

Operational considerations

Check that your kitchen preparation, serving areas, and equipment are organised efficiently to avoid cross-contamination, and make sure your labelling of dishes (either on your menus or for home delivery or takeaway) are all done correctly and clearly. It’s a good opportunity to start ensuring you’re ready to comply with the forthcoming Natasha’s Law. Your HACCP records will also need to be updated to reflect any changes to dishes.

Supply chain controls

Review your supply chain to confirm that your ingredients are suitable for using in dishes designed for vegans, or those with other specific dietary needs such as allergens.

Marketing & Social Media

Finally, consider how you will reach the target audience for your plant-based and allergen-free menu items, and include marketing in your overall strategy of branching out to cater to these customers. Right now, digital channels are your best bet and social media platforms like Instagram chime particularly well with consumers who are into healthy food, let alone plant-based and healthier lifestyles.

Also remember that you will need to make sure any questions about the ingredients of certain dishes from customers that come via social media channels are handled effectively, as they will be very visible to all customers. So make sure your marketing teams are clear on your menu.

For more information:

For more advice with creating your plant-based, allergen-free or healthier menu items, you can contact the Nutrition trained Chefs at Sustainable Kitchen Consultants via sustainablekitchenconsultants.com Or via info@sustainablekitchen.co.uk. The team offer a full service for catering to specific dietary requirements, covering Health & Safety operational audits, including HACCP & supply chain considerations, technical cooking skills and Front of House staff training.

Awards

<p>Food Allergy Awareness<br />
Winner | 2015</p>

Food Allergy Awareness
Winner | 2015

<p>Product Excellence Award<br />
Winner | 2016</p>

Product Excellence Award
Winner | 2016

<p>Great British Entrepreneur Awards<br />
Silver Winner | 2015</p>

Great British Entrepreneur Awards
Silver Winner | 2015