It’s suddenly everywhere. Starbucks is adding a plant-based protein (a sausage on a breakfast sandwich) to its U.S. and Canadian menus. KFC is running a second test of Beyond Meat’s fried “chicken,” now featuring a product that pulls apart just like muscle meat. Sales of Burger King’s Impossible Whopper have tapered off a bit since last year’s much-heralded rollout, but now McDonald’s, A&W and Wendy’s are testing new plant-based burgers in Canada.

Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. offer Beyond Burgers as well as Beyond Sausage for breakfast. Qdoba and Del Taco use plant-based crumbles in tacos and burritos; Blaze Pizza offers a vegan spicy chorizo pizza topping; Subway has a Beyond Meatball sandwich. In the full-service realm, T.G.I. Fridays, Denny’s and Red Robin offer plant-based burgers.

Mainstream chains are adopting these plant-based alternatives largely thanks to partnerships with innovative food processors like Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat, each of which has developed products that are close to meat in both taste and cooking methods.

More than 600 American Culinary Federation chefs ranked plant-based proteins third overall in the National Restaurant Association’s What’s Hot 2020 Culinary Forecast.

“If you’re a limited-service restaurant focused on operational efficiency, these analog products are pretty straightforward,” says Zak Weston, foodservice analyst at the Washington, D.C.-based Good Food Institute, a consulting firm. “You cook the product on the grill or toss it in the fryer the same way you would cook meat items. You don’t have to retrain the staff.”

There’s also a pull from consumer demand. “This category for decades was defined by a niche audience of vegans and vegetarians,” Weston says, “but now there’s a much larger market of flexitarians and omnivores who might eat beef one night and a plant burger another night. It’s the same indulgent experience, but in their minds it’s healthier, it doesn’t have cholesterol.” (However, most of these products are fairly similar to the meat versions in terms of calories and total fat, so they shouldn’t be promoted as diet fare.)

See Zak Weston in person at the 2020 Nutrition Expert Exchange conference, March 4-5, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Concerns about “what’s better for the planet” are also part of the equation, Weston says. Some consumers are adjusting their eating habits to help mitigate global warming, which is caused in part by animal agriculture.

Planting the marketing message

Based on research by the Good Food Institute and World Resources Institute, also in D.C., Weston has marketing suggestions for operators.

  • Integrate plant-based products with other items on the menu and in marketing messaging. “If you segregate them as part of your ‘secret’ menu, allergen-free options, vegetarian or vegan section, that communicates that, unless they’re specifically looking for these options, the plant-based product is not for them,” Weston says.
  • Marketing should stress above all that these items are both tasty and familiar. Focus on what the product is (plant-based), not what it isn’t (meatless).  
  • Ads should employ the very best photography, promote familiar formats and flavor cues, and show the new products in the context of the brand’s usual fare.

A plant-based future

Burger and sausage patties, taco crumbles and chicken nuggets are just the beginning. Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods and newer competitors are all working on extending their product lines to pork, lamb and even seafood analogs, and restaurant companies’ menu development teams are collaborating with processors to develop new signature items.

For some brands, a single processor-sourced burger on the menu may satisfy customer demand for a plant-based alternative. Other restaurants are offering their patrons dishes closer to their plant origins—adding housemade mushroom or bean burgers, or switching out cauliflower or jackfruit for pork in a barbecue dish.

Familiar fare like burgers and adventurous plant-based items fill different needs for different consumers — or different needs for the same consumer on different days. As more diners become comfortable with plant-based offerings at the center of the plate, interest in these more creative menu items will likely grow as well.

Zak Weston presents at the 2020 Nutrition Expert Exchange conference, March 4-5 in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. It’s where nutritionists and dietitians from the leading restaurant companies gather to network, get regulation updates and hear about upcoming trends.