Americans love to eat protein, and not just chicken, beef or pork. Plant-based protein consumption is rising, and chefs and producers are responding with more meat-free varieties and more options that mimic meat.
Nearly 40 percent of Americans are “actively trying to incorporate more plant-based foods into their diets,” according to a report by consumer and market research firm Nielsen, and 23 percent wanted to see more plant-based proteins. That’s significantly higher than the 6 percent who identified as vegetarian and the 3 percent who said they were vegan.
Never mind that most Americans eat twice as much protein as necessary, according to the Mayo Clinic. They often want something hearty and protein-rich at the heart of their meals.
“A lot of people want a sense of a center-of-the-plate,” said Steve Heeley, CEO of Veggie Grill, a 28-unit vegan chain based in Santa Monica, Calif.
Veggie Grill offers a wide variety of plant-based proteins, including several with a similar taste and texture as meat, such as a new Meatballs & Polenta Bowl. The “meatballs” are a combination of pea, wheat and soy proteins, and are custom-made for the chain.
The chain uses Gardein Chick’n as a chicken substitute, and it recently introduced a Wunderbrat made with producer Beyond Meat’s new meatless brats, made mostly of protein from peas, fava beans and rice.
“Brats are really popular in the Midwest, so we did a riff on the Midwest-style version of a brat,” Heeley said.
The sausage is grilled and served on a pretzel bun with grilled onions, craft mustard, pickled cabbage and beer “cheese” sauce made with Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and Follow Your Heart non-dairy “cheese,” which is made from coconut milk.
Veggie Grill uses Beyond Meat burgers, as does BurgerFi, a North Palm Beach, Fla.-based chain with just over 100 U.S. locations that is squarely geared toward carnivores.
“It’s going insane,” BurgerFi corporate chef Paul Griffin said. “I don’t think I’ve seen anything change the industry … as much as this plant-based protein.”
BurgerFi focuses on clean-label foods, and the Beyond Burger, which is free of gluten and soy, fits that ethos, Griffin said. But he expressed surprise at the burger’s appeal beyond coastal cities like Miami, Los Angeles and New York.
“I thought it was going to go flat when it went national, but I was wrong,” he said, noting that middle Americans from Texas to Ohio “love it.”
“We have a cult following for our quinoa VeggieFi burger, and [Beyond Burger] is rivaling it,” Griffin said.
Beyond Meat’s main rival in the meatless burger arena is the Impossible Burger, which is made from wheat protein and appears to bleed like meat thanks to the use of heme, a protein that is a key component in the hemoglobin of blood. (Impossible Foods, which makes the Impossible Burger, derives heme from plants.)
Bareburger and Umami Burger have introduced the Impossible Burger in the past year, as have numerous independent restaurants. But the largest chain to introduce the burger to date is Beverly Hills, Calif.-based Fatburger, with 151 locations worldwide. Fatburger debuted the Impossible Burger at its 68 U.S. restaurants in February after testing it at seven Los Angeles locations.
“We’ve had stores selling 80 to 100 burgers a day just in Impossible Burgers,” Fatburger CEO Andrew Wiederhorn said. “It’s been in high demand.”
Fatburger has served a Boca Burger for years, but it contains dairy and soy, which the Impossible Burger doesn’t (although it does contain gluten). The Impossible Burger also tastes more like meat, according to Wiederhorn, and pairs better with Fatburger’s toppings, which are intended for beef.
“We’ve had a definite expansion in our non-beef-eating customer base,” Wiederhorn said.
Although the chain has long offered vegetarian and turkey burgers, customers who don’t eat beef would often come just for its lemonade or banana shake. But now they’re coming for burgers.
“Absolutely it has driven customers who … didn’t know they could get a beef alternative, let alone a vegan option,” Wiederhorn said.
The Impossible Burger is more expensive — twice the cost of ground beef — so franchisees price it from $8 to $9, instead of $5 to $6 for a beef burger, and make the same dollar profit, if not the same margin.
Chicken is also getting the plant-based treatment. Curry Up Now, a six-unit fast-casual Indian chain based in San Francisco, recently replaced its high-protein tofu with Hungry Planet’s “Range-Free Chicken,” which is made from wheat and soy proteins.
The new item is “slightly” outperforming its replacement, said Akash Kapoor, founder and CEO of Curry Up Now.
“We have seen a positive response with the plant protein, but it does vary based on location,” Kapoor said in an email. “We've seen a stronger response from our San Francisco, Oakland and Palo Alto stores, where there's already high awareness about vegan protein. At our other locations in communities [in Silicon Valley] where plant protein is not as well known, we've had the unique opportunity to be one of the first restaurants to educate our guests about the benefits of plant protein.”
Falafel finds an opening
But not all consumers want their vegetables to try to be meat. Some, whether they are vegetarians or flexitarians, want to eat vegetables that are just vegetables.
“There are people who, for whatever reason, don’t want to eat manufactured burgers,” Heeley of Veggie Grill said.
The chain serves a burger-like quinoa-mushroom burger, but it also uses a lot of falafel, or Middle Eastern chickpea fritters, which are flexible additions to salads and sandwiches, traditionally served in a pita with hummus, tahini and vegetables.
Zoës Kitchen rolled out falafel to its 250 locations at the end of February.
“Our guests are giving us very good feedback, better than we thought,” said Antonio Iocchi, corporate chef at the Plano, Texas-based chain.
In line with Zoës Kitchen’s healthful Mediterranean-food positioning, and also because the fast-casual chain’s kitchens don’t have fryers, the falafel is baked.
Iocchi spent the past couple of years developing the falafel, and the chain tested it in select locations beginning last October. They are available as a protein option for new bowls that were introduced last summer — with a base of whole grains or riced cauliflower — as well as in a pita with tzatziki, the trendy Yemeni hot sauce skhug and shredded cabbage. Falafel can also be added to salads or served as a side dish with a choice of tzatziki, skhug, harissa or salsa verde.
Although falafel is Zoës Kitchen’s first center-of-the plate vegetable protein, it also offers hummus, lentil soup, and braised white beans with rosemary and garlic.
Yes, straight-up beans count, too. They’re in the shepherd’s pie at Fig & Farro, a vegetarian restaurant that opened in Minneapolis in late January.
The restaurant uses locally processed jackfruit in some menu items, co-owner Thomas Dambrine said, but it prefers to focus on actual vegetables. The shepherd’s pie is a lentil stew with onion, garlic, butternut squash, carrots, celery, cauliflower, tomatoes and mushrooms, cooked in red wine with rosemary, thyme and Worcestershire sauce, and topped with mashed potatoes.
Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected]
Follow him on Twitter: @foodwriterdiary
March 9, 2018: This story has been updated with the current number of Zoë's Kitchen locations.