Focus on flavor is key in marketing plant-forward food to diners

As US diners increasingly seek out meals that are made without meat or use it in a supporting role to plant products, it’s important for foodservice operators to understand how to market these dishes in a way that resonates with consumers. A recent Nielsen survey found that 22% of Americans plan to eat less meat in the future, but the types of dishes diners choose are still determined largely by taste, a panel of experts said at the Culinary Institute of America’s sixth annual Menus of Change conference. A discussion moderated by Nation’s Restaurant News editor Bret Thorn and sponsored by Bush’s Best entitled “Messaging and Menuing for Plant-Based Foods,” offered insights for operators about putting plant-forward dishes in the best possible light.

Taste comes out on top

The main concern cited by consumers who are hesitant about ordering plant-forward or meatless dishes is that they won’t taste good, Datassential’s Marie Molde said. When naming dishes, it’s best to focus on their flavors and the ingredients they contain, rather than calling out their lack of animal protein.

Even though health is one of the main drivers of consumers’ intent to eat less meat, they don’t want to feel like they are compromising the opportunity for indulgence or missing out on favorite flavors. Drawing parallels to familiar dishes can attract consumers to similar items that are made with less or no meat. Aramark has seen success with a mushroom-based take on a Philly cheesesteak that it offers at some sports arenas, said Kathy Cacciola, senior director of environmental sustainability for the foodservice provider.

Beware the v-word

While it may seem helpful to call out dishes as being vegan or vegetarian or put them in a special section of the menu, doing so can make these dishes far less likely to appeal to a wide range of diners, panelists cautioned. Plant-based dishes sell better when they don’t have the word vegan or vegetarian in the title and are mixed in amongst menu items that contain meat, said Alison Rabschnuk, director of corporate engagement for The Good Food Institute.

“Veganism and vegetarianism are synonymous with deprivation for a lot of consumers,” she said, explaining that many diners assume foods with these labels will lack flavor or won’t be filling.

This effect carries over to food retail, Cacciola said, citing a recent Morning Consult survey reported by Newsweek that found that 35% of US consumers said the word “vegan” made food products seem less appealing.

Branded products can build buzz

Despite consumers’ professed lack of enthusiasm for products with a vegan pedigree, the business of “meatless meat” is booming, and restaurants can grab attention by putting name brand meat alternatives on the menu.

Restaurant chains that have added the Beyond Burger or Impossible Burger to their menus have in some cases seen double-digit sales increases, Rabschnuk said. She said it remains to be seen whether the increase in business is only temporary and will die down as these products become less novel, but referenced testimonials from optimistic operators on The Good Food Institute’s website.

“From a business perspective the benefits of offering plant-based meats like the Impossible & Beyond burgers are huge,” Bareburger CEO Euripides Pelekanos said in his testimonial. “The amount of first-time guests we have gotten through the doors because of our plant-based burgers is amazing; and these guests become repeat/loyal customers. Not only is it great for guest acquisition, it’s also a dream for press and word-of-mouth marketing.”

For a limited-time-offering made with the tomato-based tuna replacement called Ahimi, Aramark used the brand name in the title of the dish to draw in diners curious about the new product. With companies including Tyson Foods, Cargill and Nestle investing in plant-based proteins and innovations with algae and other lesser-known sources of plant protein still in their early stages, there’s a good chance that foodservice operators will be able to ride the wave of new meatless products for years to come.

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