Restaurant operators are offering an expanding array of menu options as more guests add plant-based and alternative proteins to their diets. 

But knowing how to market these offerings isn't always easy. The reasons guests seek out “plant-forward” cuisine are varied, ranging from health to the environment to animal welfare.

A panel of experts from restaurant chains, suppliers and food consultancies offered marketing advice at our recent Restaurant Innovation Summit, Nov. 7-8 in Dallas:

  • Flavor is king. No matter what ingredients you use to prepare your product, flavor is the most important thing, the experts agreed. Promoting your food that way seems to work best, said Wendy Davidson, president of Specialty Channels at Kellogg North America. Calling an item “vegetarian” is about the product, Davidson notes. But marketing “the authenticity of ingredients, the cooking method, using words like grilled and seared, those things equate to the flavor profile.”
  • Focus on lifestyle. Flower Child restaurants taglines its offerings “Healthy food for a happy world.” Tracy McGinnis, director of marketing for Fox Restaurant Concepts, Flower Child’s parent company, said her restaurants use words like vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free on the menu, but focus their marketing on lifestyle. “It’s about feeling great so when you leave you feel well and radiate positivity.”
  • Emphasize the adventure. White Castle said it focuses on what its customers would be willing to try. “We consider ourselves a slider brand,” said Chief Marketing Officer Kim Bartley, who noted that the chain rolled out Impossible Burger sliders chainwide in September. “They’re plant-based, but taste great. We try to make everything craveable.”
  • Align with the brand. Consultant Bruce Perkin, principal scientist with Robust Food Solutions, said it’s important to align products with the brand. “Take Arby’s, which is all about the meats. They can have fun with ‘We have the wannabe meats,’” he said.

For restaurant companies looking to be more plant-forward, the panelists recommended talking to customers first and finding great partners to help. “If a product isn’t good enough for you to use,” Perkin said, “don’t use it.” But if it works with your menu and your cooking platform, “it may bring in a new consumer that wouldn’t come to your operation.”