A Sustainable Plant-Based Future; Dos & Don’ts For Foodservice Menus – Part 1

In 2017, research by Behavioural Scientist Linda Bacon found that the arrangement of vegetarian and meat options on a menu affected the option people choose. People were 57% less likely to pick a plant-based option if it appeared under a separate ‘vegetarian’ heading, rather than mixed in with the meat-options and signalled out by the (v) that you may spot on a menu at Spoons or Nandos. 

plant based burger

Bacon’s research valiantly seeks to understand the subconscious decisions made when dining out, positing that language is the driver of purchasing behaviour. If research can pinpoint why some people avoid plant-based options, something can be done to target and reduce that, guiding the food industry, as well as public health and perception, into a more balanced and sustainable posture.

When I was a teenager, many of my friends were deemed so ‘fussy’ they wound up defining themselves as flexitarians, or pescatarians, or, what’s that one where you don’t eat meat, but you do eat chicken, but you hate eggs, but you might eat a burger if you’re out? At least I can claim that we were part of the generation that really did bring the food industry into a new phase of consciousness, albeit, unaware of such noble underlying motivations.

Earlier this year, Bacon’s working partner The Better Buying Lab published a useful, but by no means definitive, guide for the foodservice sector to generate consumer appeal for plant-based items. The results are four terms to avoid and three to use when pulling together a menu.

Four menu descriptors that signal bland, unindulgent, nutritionally unbalanced, and alienating: vegan, vegetarian, meat-free and health restrictive words terms like ‘low-fat’.

The three to make use of are: provenance, flavour, and look (especially colour)/ feel (mouthfeel). Evocative, flavour enhancing, indulgence-promising, as long as the menu does not scream about what it lacks, then it’s onto a winner.

Conversely, as Oliver Franklin-Wallis puts it in his brilliant essay on alternative milks, it’s down to our “anxious eating culture” that consumers are being drawn into a purchase due to what the product doesn’t have, afraid of the health complications of consuming a ‘normal’ version of that product. Your average consumer would not choose a product that advertises itself as sugar-free because they prefer the taste of less sugar, but because they are concerned about their sugar intake, a fear created and enhanced by news media and friends, conversations in the office and general industry distrust.

Those well-versed in the free from category have been preaching the necessity of boasting what a product has, not what it hasn’t, for a few years now. But Franklin-Wallis has a point. Even though free from language has been signposted as a consumer-deterrent in the consulting side of the food industry for a few years now, neither Bacon’s nor the Better Buying Lab’s studies can claim that free from language should be dismissed in the industry as a whole, especially in retailers.

Veering away from this dialogue (a never-ending discussion really), let’s see how these seven criteria fare. I decided to pick a chain, an independent, and plant-based only. 

1.) Nandos, The Chain

With less of a focus on the titles, Nandos truly sinks into visual language. From “chunky sticks of grilled halloumi” (Halloumi Sticks) to “a fresh mix of grains” (Supergreen Salad), plant-based items are idealised by their adjectivality. Fresh and substantial – while the fresh plant-based stereotype is met, the negative insubstantial stereotype is reversed. 

Indulgence however, seems to be restricted to the meat options: “two succulent chicken breasts” (Butterfly Chicken), and it would be hard to ignore the indulgence of the title “Sunset Burger”. Yes, Nandos is a chicken restaurant, but its plant-based options could do with some more idealising – at least in the name. 

Due to the tapas, collaborative dining experience of Nandos, it would over complicate ordering if there were separate menus for meat-eaters and vegetarians. So far, pretty adherent to the seven rules.

Truthfully, the combinations of the famed Nandos flavours, which need no expanding on the menu; and the restaurant’s white meat foundation should really make Nandos a tricky restaurant for these seven criteria to hit, but given its positioning as both young and as a healthier fast food, and the known plethora of vegetarian and vegan options to switch out the chicken main within its wraps (arguably, Nandos madehalloumi the sensation it is today), perhaps Nandos needs to emphasise the tastiness of its chicken options. A chunk of halloumi probably wouldn’t look as good on merchandise.

2.) Al-Farid, The Independent 

Independent restaurants are prone to using more flamboyant language in their menus. Whereas chains flaunt the luxury of signature dishes and consumer exposure nationwide, independent restaurants must work hard to entice their consumers, a name like “Our Curry Goat” (Turtle Bay) is neither identifiable nor appealing in the context of the unknown.

Al-Farid, a Moroccan restaurant in Exeter, can pride themselves of some fabulous meat dishes, but I wondered how the plant-based options fared in the mezze (where you’d be expected to choose at least one or two) and main course sections (where it should be a 50:50 chance to pick a plant-based option based on the description).

From “local chicken”, to “tender lamb”, Al-Faird ticks the three must dos – language appealing to provenance, flavour, and the senses. Meat-free, health-conscious, and segregation of vegetarian and vegan are avoided but it feels like the descriptions of the meat options have had a lot more effort put into them than the plant-based with descriptors like “delicious” and “local”, with more emphasis on the method of cooking “grilled” “slow roasted” “marinated”. Whereas plant-based options are less described than listed “layers of grilled aubergine, sweet potato, tomato and Maghrabian cheese”. 

Perhaps because it is difficult to highlight the provenance of a chickpea vs chicken, or the juiciness of a lamb fillet vs the umami of a falafel, but a lot could be done to really emphasise the look especially of the plant-based options.

Mezze is a lot simpler. Dishes have shorter names, are less complicated composures, and both meat and plant-based options are simple ingredient lists. In this sense, all options are equally appealing, and consumers would choose their options based on their fundamental ingredient preference. That is with the exception of the “Foul Moudama” of course: “Boiled broad beans laced with garlic, drizzled with lemon juice and olive oil”.

3.) Rabbit & Sacred Grounds, The Plant-Based Cafes

Is the plant-based café to take the same advice? Unlike the chains, the plant-based café assumes the vegan-meat-eater divide is dissolved once the consumer walks through the door. And that is clear in its menu. I decided to take a look at a few vegan cafes in my city, Exeter.

Rabbit calls itself a vegan café, and its menu is split into vice and virtue, but it manages to display some of the don’ts with a “chickenless patty”, and the “(No) Meatball Marinara” although in the context of the vegan café, the humour is not very appealing. 

Descriptors however, are spot on: “homemade marinara”, “organic tofu”, “in-house mayo”, “spicy raw carrot”, “rainbow salad”.  Hitting provenance, flavour, look, and taste and mixing in the wholesome, British pub feel of “in-house” with the on trend “organic”, Rabbit has done a great job of its menu.

Sacred Grounds is undoubtedly the most adherent to the seven criteria, and it is the trendiest and busiest café for Saturday brunch in Exeter. Locality of provenance, organicity, fairness, and responsibility – some of the most popular vegan trends – are all displayed in the most simplistic menu out of all. Waffle – sweet or savoury? Smørrebrød – I or II?

Of course, all of this has been subjective. So we’re going to ask our consumer panel what they think – does the seven criteria make plant-based dishes more enticing, do they work in practice? Is free from language really to be avoided entirely, or is there some place for it? Do vegan cafes alienate meat-eaters? Let’s see.

We’ll be taking a look at plant-based options in upcoming articles and our next trend report. Have you got a plant-based product which could make its way into a foodservice menu or into supermarkets? Contact us by calling 02039 319066 or email Chloe at chloe@hra-global.com.

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