Everyone likes chicken. Bloomberg calls it the only meat everyone agrees on. The world is on pace to consume 133 million tons of poultry in 2022, so it’s not going away anytime soon. And yet the USDA, the OECD and other organizations that track such things show consumption of red meat and poultry tapering off or declining slightly over the next few years. Blame… everyone.
For whatever reason—and there appear to be many—people are more willing these days to order vegetarian and plant-based fare. Recent Technomic foodservice research found, for instance, that plant-based chicken alternatives are currently the most in-demand option among consumers globally even though vegetables were still the preferred alternative to meat.
If menus reflect consumer preferences and industry realities, then perhaps we are seeing the face of a longer-term move beyond protein driven by:
Large chains validating the vegetarian palate, avoiding the no vote
Virtues of veggie-forward diet including but not limited to healthy living and social responsibility
Rising economic and environmental costs of livestock production
Stable or lower unit costs for veg and meat analogs
Continually evolving dining concepts and menus encourage trying new things
Social media lets everybody know who’s eating what; instant trends from one-offs
There is certainly no cause for alarm among dedicated carnivores. But operators who cater to them should be aware that vegetarian recipes are boldly elbowing their way to the center of the plate not just at trendy urban concept restaurants but on the casual dining comfort foods menu, as well.
Let’s take a closer look.
Vegetarian entrées and entire vegan meals are headlining the finest dining establishments. New York City’s Eleven Madison Park famously changed to an all-vegan menu in 2021. Wolfgang Puck’s Spago features meatless soups, pastas and roasted fruits and cheeses as center of the plate items. Certainly, such dishes have always appealed beyond the strictly vegan diet. What’s changing at the moment, you might say, is velocity. There are simply more such options on the mainstream menu, just as there are an increasing number of concepts aimed directly at vegan, vegetarian, and flexitarian tastes.
Some concepts, like the small Atlanta chain Slutty Vegan, are gaining publicity by aiming vegan directly at traditionally non-vegan culture. The menu has fun with its theme, but the burgers and chicken sandwiches are legit—piled high with meat-free patties and heaped with toppings. On the side? French fries, sure, but fried pickles with blackberry sauce and sea moss banana pudding!
Vegan is the new different
“So, yes, vegan is growing stronger,” said Henny Penny Corporate Chef, Gregg Brickman. “Cauliflower is basically the new veggie chicken. You can braise or roast it, or even do deep fried like Buffalo cauliflower wings from Buffalo Wild Wings. We recently made fried Brussels sprouts trimmed at the top that opened like small onion blossoms and drizzled them with a sweet Sriracha. You’re dealing with foods, flavors and textures people aren’t used to but are willing to try. They see other people eating this new stuff on social media, and so they try it and find out it’s good!”
Going veggie is even more likely when the person recommending it is sitting across from you. In fact, one in five diners surveyed by Technomic said they ordered vegan foods simply because someone else did. This is essentially how flexitarian became a thing. It also illustrates the wisdom of adding popular vegan or vegetarian options to the menu to avoid the “no” vote when the group is deciding where to go or what to order in.
Plant-based and deep fried
Research suggests global consumer demand for meatless chicken nuggets and tenders is higher than any other menu category, including beef and fish. That might be because the beefless burgers and un-chicken wings you get at restaurants actually taste good. The burgers are mostly soy, and some even “bleed” from an added ingredient genetically engineered from soy leghemoglobin and yeast. The chicken can be soy or fermented mycoprotein, which forms in strands and layers mimicking the texture of real chicken.
Most of the plant-based chicken and a lot of the veggie items on today’s menus are fried for good reason. Deep frying greatly enhances the flavors and textures from breading, seasonings, injections, and marinades, which are key to achieving a craveable taste.
Accordingly, Chef Gregg says it’s vital for commercial fryers to have precise temperature controls because cook and recovery times are generally shorter. “Just like with animal protein, vegan chicken must be fried to crispy perfection but without burning, which can happen.” His pick is the Evolution Elite deep fryer with multiple wells you can filter individually in a couple of minutes. “The Evolution Elite is made for this. You’re able to stay true to the vegan diet by dedicating vats for vegetable proteins without cross contamination from animal proteins, fats, or frying oils. These low-oil volume multi-well fryers are ideal for handling high throughput of a variety of veggie or plant-based menu orders. Plus, you’ll save 40 percent or more on your oil costs in the process.”
Veggies front and center
Fad or not, the current popularity of plant-based chicken is the push away from protein that’s fueling a longer-term trend toward veggie-forward menus. Part of the innovation, says Chef Gregg, is that protein is going to the side where sides are becoming unique and interesting. “A steak is a steak. But now they are getting smaller, and look at all the great sides or ways to serve it, the fun things that come along with it, like spinach in fresh cream or frizzled onion rings, with a smear of hummus or baba ghanoush.”
Sides present flavor profiles that are new and different for most people. As these flavors are discovered and popularity spikes, they migrate to center of the plate as vegetarian dinners. Thanks to social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok, this can happen almost immediately. “Everyone sees what everyone else is eating the moment they’re eating it,” said Chef Gregg. “Suddenly it’s a thing, and that’s when a fast casual chain will capitalize on it.”
Economics and a new food culture
Part of what is driving the long-term trend in the industry toward meat substitutes is price. Globally, nearly half of consumers surveyed by Technomic said they were willing to pay more for vegetarian or plant-based protein alternatives than for meat. Soon, they won’t have to. Protein just keeps getting more expensive for reasons that include supply, transportation, increased regulations, and environmental concerns, which fuel more expensive methods of producing food from livestock.
Right now, menu prices for vegan-friendly burgers and chicken are about the same as their real-meat counterparts, less in some cases. Apart from rising protein prices, plant-based meat analogs are more readily available because supply problems associated with the Covid-19 pandemic have been mostly resolved. Growing popularity has also encouraged more entrants in the category and a ramping up of production. Billions are also being invested in cultured or lab-grown meat and poultry, although the process is extremely expensive and raises completely new concerns about labeling and safety of bio-engineered products for human consumption. In any case, the economic viability of cultured meat appears to be years if not decades away.
Food has always been linked to culture. But what we’re seeing now transcends geography and ethnicity. New regional flavors are trending—Iranian/Persian, for example. But the broader move away from traditional proteins is the future. It’s a trend defined by experimentation in the kitchen as well as the lab. And it arises from a culture crosshatched with vegan, flexitarian, environmental, and nutritional sensibilities.
Are you thinking of exploring plant-based options for your menu? Talk to a Henny Penny distributor about anything from menu development to product testing to equipment specifications.
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