With younger generations paying heed to their environmental footprint, plant-based proteins are finding wide appeal, an outcome that should make operators take note. Expect more options to menu, from lab-grown meat and eggs to plant-based fish that looks shockingly like the real thing.

Word on getting ahead with plant-based proteins Word on getting ahead with plant-based proteins
It’s not just the same old grind with center of the plate proteins. Driven hard and fast by interest from younger consumers who bring an earth-first ethos to their dining habits, plant-based options that closely mimic their meat, poultry and seafood counterparts have muscled onto menus with an onslaught of new products set to hit the marketplace. Meat-pink burgers with bloody centers may have stoked interest, but they’re just the opening salvo.

“The number of alternate proteins in development is pretty astounding,” says Ron DeSantis of CulinaryNXT, a Connecticut-based foodservice advisory firm. “Flavor profiles and visual presentations are close to the real things. That convinces people that they’re legit and opens them to new audiences,” he says. Plant-based steaks are in the works and said to be close to restaurant-ready.

Who wants a meat subBut here’s the shocker, the salient point all operators should note: it’s not vegans or vegetarians who are the heavy users of plant-based meat products. According to Impossible Foods, makers of the burger by the same name, 70% of people ordering its plant-based products are meat eaters.

“Younger consumers are in tune with the environmental impact and health pluses of plant-based choices,” DeSantis says. “As an operator, you have to look ahead and consider what’s going on with the next generation of diners. They think about food much differently.”

Interest in so-called meat analogues, which includes plant-based meat substitutes that mimic the flavor, texture and appearance of proteins, has never been stronger. With more than one-third of consumer saying they intend to eat more non-meat proteins this year, there’s big incentive for operators to include them on menus.

Products such as veggie and bean burgers, tofu, tempeh and algae-based seafood subs, such as crab and shrimp, all of which are appearing on menus, not just with increasing frequency, but also in ways that forever banish the idea that they appeal only to the health food fringers (see opposite page). In large part, this growth has been fueled by a desire to eat less meat. According to research firm Datassential, 59% of consumers go meatless at least once a week.

JUST Egg Patty on a pretzel Bun with nut cheese and mushrooms makes for a vegan experience
JUST Egg Patty on a pretzel bun with nut cheese and mushrooms makes for a vegan experience.

(Sea) FISH for Thought

Environmental concerns aren’t just land-based, with potential species extinction a serious global issue. Farm-raised species, which help mediate overfishing, have been joined by a spate of plant-based choices. Ocean Hugger Foods® flaunts a line of seafood using vegetables that mimic the look and texture of the real deal. Think tomato for tuna, carrots for salmon and eggplant for eel.

Veggie Grill, a Santa Monica, California-based fast-casual chain with a menu that’s 100% plant-based, offers Crispy “Crab” Cake, the flaky white strands of Hungry Planet’s soy- and wheat-based faux crab. It also is offered at the Garden Bistro, a 100% plant-based dining concept at Carnegie Mellon University’s Resnik House.

Playing Chicken

When Akash Kapoor founded his California-based Curry Up Now restaurant in 2009, he wanted an alternative protein on his menu but was frustrated by a lack of choices. When he found a plant-based ground chicken substitute that met his taste and textural standards, he quickly added it to his menu last year.

“It’s not really for vegetarians,” he says. “They’re not looking for something that looks or tastes like meat.”

Fire Up the Grill

Word on getting ahead with plant-based proteinsSAJJ Mediterranean, a nine-unit Middle Eastern brand in the San Francisco Bay area, offers a strong slate of vegan and vegetarian items. To further its roster, it recently added a kabob with ground plant-based beef from Impossible Foods as a recurring special. CEO Zaid Ayoub says it sells out each time.

“The target audience is meat eaters who want an environmentally friendly product,” Ayoub says. “They care about global warming, pollution and land use and this drives their food choices.” Thus, it attracts millennials and older diners alike.

“The flavor is earthier,” says Ayoub, who also notes that it’s easy to handle and cook.

Culture Club

Alternative proteins give new meaning to locally grown

Imagine foie gras, burgers, chicken nuggets, T-bones, chorizo and fin fish cultured in petri dishes with progenitor cells from the animals or fish they ape. It’s no longer weird science, as some companies – such as Memphis Meats, Wild Type and Mosa Meat – claim they’re on the way to making lab-grown meat commercially viable and affordable.

Labeling these products as meat or fish could kick up a lot of dust as the meat and seafood industries prepare to protect their products. At a hearing held last year, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration referred to them as “food produced using animal cell culture technology,” while proponents hailed it as clean meat or in vitro meat.

Whatever the terminology, here are some companies and products worth keeping an eye on:

Afineur: yeast-based coffee substitute
Alelph Farms: lab-grown steak
Clara Foods: lab-grown egg whites
Endless West: molecular whiskey that doesn’t require aging in oak barrels
Finless Foods: bluefin tuna cultivation
Hungry Planet: vegan crab
Just: lab-raised meat, plant-based scrambled eggs, foie gras
Miyoko’ s Kitchen: cheese-type food made from cultured nuts
New Wave Foods: shrimp from red algae and plant proteins
Perfect Day Foods: milk- and dairy-type products from yeast fermentation
Plant Based Foods: Cavi-Art, algae-based substitute for caviar

Menu Finder: Hot Selling Plant-Based Specials

Meat for the future

Multiple locations
“Burger” of brown rice, farro, mushrooms, black beans and onion on brioche bun.

Multiple locations
Crispy “crab” cake with spiced tartar sauce and fixings on a sesame seed bun.

Vegan bahn mi with pecan pate, charred trumpet mushrooms, pickled veggies and nuoc cham on baguette.

Austin, Texas
Wanna B.L.T.A with housemade tofu bacon, leaf lettuce, local tomatoes, avocado and basil aioli on sourdough toast.

Los Angeles
Spicy meatball pizza with housemade “meatballs,” Calabrese peppers, almond ricotta and micro basil.

SLATER'S 50/50 
California, Hawaii, Nevada and Texas 
OG Impossible Burger with pepper jack cheese, sunny-side up egg, avocado and chipotle mayo (pictured).