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Power your menu with plants

Why operators need to add these emerging plant-based proteins to menus now.

The hype around alternative meats may have died down in recent years, but the market for meatless proteins continues to grow. Though only a small percentage of U.S. consumers consider themselves vegan or vegetarian, more consumers are ordering plant-based foods, presenting a growing opportunity for restaurants.

According to Technomic Ignite Consumer, 6% of restaurant consumers ordered an item that features a plant-based protein in 2023, up from 1.9% in 2022.

But those orders aren’t only for alternative meat sandwiches, such as the Impossible Whopper at Burger King or the Beyond Famous Star with Cheese at Carl’s Jr, but increasingly for main dishes and salads. For example, Technomic Ignite Menu data reveals that 6.5% of the Top 500 chain restaurant operators menu plant-based proteins with salads.

Younger consumers are among those most interested in ordering plant-based items, Technomic found. Among those reporting they purchased an item with a plant-based protein from a chain in 2023, 36% were millennials and 23% were Gen Zers. And while price is often a barrier to niche foods, consumers who purchased plant-based items in the last year came from nearly every level of household income.

With the plant-based food-service landscape continuing to evolve, operators have more options for updating their menus to cater consumers’ plant-forward preferences. Here are some of the top trending plant-based ingredients to consider adding to salads or serving as a side dish.

Add an eggscellent ingredient

Plant-based eggs, typically made from bean protein, are now available in nearly every form that their chicken-laid counterparts are—from scrambled to hard-boiled. According to market research firm Datassential, plant-based egg is currently in the adoption stage and skews toward regional and fast-casual restaurant operators. Additionally, about 45% of the consumer population is aware of plant-based egg; 14% say they have already tried them.

Though Technomic’s data indicates just 1% of the Top 500 chain restaurant operators are menuing vegan eggs today, menu mentions of egg alternatives have increased nearly 17% in the past year. Many chains, such as the 34-unit Broken Yolk Café, serve vegan eggs in breakfast sandwiches and bowls. But opportunities to offer plant-based eggs at other meal occasions abound, including adding them hard-boiled and sliced to an entrée salad or as a nutritious grab-and-go afternoon snack.

Dip into the faux fish pond

The only plant-based food category growing more rapidly than vegan eggs may be alternative seafood. Think sushi-grade faux tuna and salmon, made with ingredients such as bamboo, radish, and algae, being billed as more sustainable, environmentally superior, and healthier than traditional seafood.

Last year’s National Restaurant show floor was abundant with plant-based substitutes—everything from the familiar Beyond and Impossible meats to traditional tofu and tempeh, but also faux fish made with konjac root and rolled into sushi from Boldy Foods, an emerging plant-based seafood purveyor. While only about 0.5% of the Top 500 chain restaurant operators are menuing plant-based seafood right now, according to Technomic, with menu mentions of plant-based seafood up 50% over the last year, more operators—and consumers—are expected to take the bait.

Try some ‘shrooms

Not every consumer trying to move away from meat is interested in analogs. Instead, some plant-forward consumers—and chefs—are moving to fresh mushrooms. According to the Mushroom Council, an organization that represents commercial mushroom growers, 930 million pounds of cultivated mushrooms were sold in the U.S. last year, an increase of 16% in the last decade.

Among the operators placing mushrooms at the center of a salad is Philadelphia-based Hip City Veg, a seven-unit vegan chain, now serving the Southern Fried Mitake Salad, with a crispy maitake mushroom, romaine, carrot, pickled onion, cucumber, creamy dill dressing, and fresh lemon.

Give (chick)peas a chance

Chickpeas, the nutrient-dense, dry edible seed of plants from the legume family—also called garbanzo beans—have been sprouting up on menus in all segments for several years now. Menuing chickpeas was a challenge during the pandemic due to adverse weather and production and supply chain issues. But thanks to good growing weather, supply chain solutions, and a host of snack manufacturers now selling them as “natural” and “healthy” snacks, chickpeas are back—big time.

According to Technomic’s Ignite Menu, 11.5% of Top 500 chain restaurants menu chickpeas today, up from 10.4% of in Q4 2019; menu mentions have also increased 18.2% since Q4 2019.

When it comes to restaurants, chickpeas are an incredibly versatile ingredient and a suitable meat substitute—a perfect fit for adding protein to salads and grain bowls, roasting and serving as side dish or bar snack, or grinding into a flour, and making plant-based sweet baked goods and savory breads.

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