Seafood And Vegetarian Diners Seek Innovative Plant-based Dishes

By Maia Chang

Healthy eating is undoubtedly one of the most important and impactful trends in the foodservice industry. Consumers are paying more attention to what they’re eating, and they want to eat more unprocessed foods like fruits and vegetables. Research conducted in Technomic’s 2016 Healthy Eating study shows that 72 percent of consumers say they are more likely to buy foods and beverages labeled as unprocessed. Further, 78 percent of consumers also state the greater likelihood of buying items labeled as containing a full serving of vegetables, and 74 percent of consumers say the same for items containing a full serving of fruits.

Consumers of all ages are making an effort to eat more healthfully, and that desire is driving an uptick in vegetable consumption. Research from Technomic’s 2017 Center of the Plate: Seafood and Vegetarian Consumer Trend Report shows that 41 percent of consumers report eating more vegetables now than they did a year ago. The study compiles findings from Technomic’s Digital Resource Library, Menumonitor and an online survey of a nationally representative sample of 1,500 consumers who eat meals with seafood, vegetarian or vegan items.

As consumers strive to eat more healthfully, trends indicate that animal protein sizes will shrink and vegetables will grow to be a larger portion of the plate. Further, data from the Seafood and Vegetarian Consumer Trend Report also suggests that vegetables will increasingly hold their own and play the starring role on menus. As vegetables move center stage, in many cases they will take on meat preparations and presentations. Interesting preparations, like blackened, smoked and charred vegetables, can further drive the impression that these dishes are equal in value and taste to dishes with meat. Animal proteins will no longer necessarily be the essential component of a dish. Vegetables will increasingly be the star player called out in menu titles — even if there is meat or seafood present, such as a “charred cauliflower Panini with chicken” or “cucumber dish with strawberries, radish, and shrimp.”

This “flipping the plate” trend will lead to more vegetable-centered entree plates. To balance these dishes, operators will offer meatier and carb-heavy side dishes. Prices for these vegetable-centered dishes will remain on par with those of meatier entrees. Restaurants will justify these prices with interesting and unique preparations such as spiced-up vegetables at the center of the plate, featuring Indian, African and Middle Eastern flavor profiles.

Further, data from the report shows that the growing variety of vegetarian and healthy dishes is drawing some consumers’ attention to meatless dishes. Research shows that on occasions when consumers order vegetarian or vegan dishes, they are purposefully ordering vegetarian or vegan dishes only 34 percent of the time. This suggests that consumers who order meatless dishes frequently do so because they are looking for healthier options or simply because the item sounds tasty. It’s worth noting that younger consumers — ages 18-34 — are slightly more likely than their older counterparts to specifically seek out vegetarian or vegan items on menus.

Beyond just offering more vegetable-forward dishes, research also shows an opportunity to grow vegetarian or vegan offerings. Consumers are becoming more comfortable with these types of items — as eating vegetarian and vegan items becomes more common. In fact, nearly half of consumers (45 percent) who eat these items have family or friends who are vegetarian or vegan, underscoring the importance of offering tasty meatless meals that can help negate the veto vote.

Positioning these items as plant-based rather than meatless or vegan may help these dishes gain traction. Plant-based can appeal to a wider audience and help overcome negative value connotations. To capitalize on interest in vegetarian or vegan options, restaurants will innovate meatless options with bold flavors and new types of meat alternatives like those made from jackfruit or dishes that allow plant-based ingredients to shine. Specifically comparing protein content will help signal that these dishes are nutritious and filling.

As consumers’ needs and palates shift, vegetables will grow to play an increasingly important role in consumers’ dishes. Whether as an ingredient that adds flare to the dish or as the leading ingredient, vegetables will increasingly influence consumers’ considerations as they peruse menus. Taking advantage of that opportunity to innovate new, unique dishes, while playing up the health aspect, will spark interest among consumers and may help drive traffic.