Cracking the foodservice sector is crucial for plant-based food producers, but specifically for those making meat alternatives there are great opportunities in the post-Covid consumer landscape. By partnering with the right outlets and distributers, plant-based brands are increasing their impact, according to some key players in the sector.
According to globaldata.com UK foodservice is expected to grow by a CAGR of more than 14% between 2021 and 2026. Foodservice includes any outlet that is not retail: such as pubs, bars, restaurants, schools, universities, hospitals, offices, work canteens, leisure facilities, travel destinations, events, street stalls, and transport onboard catering.
The foodservice sector is complex and diverse, with significant changes post-Covid. During 2021, customers stopped eating out, and several familiar restaurant chains disappeared. There has been a huge expansions of delivery operators like Just Eat, Deliveroo and Uber Eats, who were able to safely cater for customers during this time. Customers using those platforms can filter for dietary requirements, strengthening the importance of catering to those with ethical, religious, and health concerns.
Claire Roper is a Marketing Consultant for foodservice and food brands, who was previously Head of Foodservice Marketing at Quorn. She explains that while the percentage of dedicated plant-based consumers in the UK is still relatively small, between 40% and 50% of consumers want to reduce meat consumption, bringing meat-free dining from niche to everyday behaviour.
Claire continues “It’s very important for brands and suppliers to work with foodservice to deliver the options that consumers now expect. By offering plant-based options, it allows an outlet to offer greater inclusivity on their menu. Because vegans have quite specific requirements, they often drive a group’s decision on where to eat. If a menu lacks vegan options, the custom of the party could be lost.
It’s important for foodservice operators to make sure they’ve got something appealing and that it is visible on the menu. Consumers do a lot of research before going out, and there’s a lot more opportunity for people to share opinions on review sites. People are making decisions before they even venture inside an establishment.”
Claire Roper works with brands on accessing foodservice in creative ways. Recently she has been working with aquafaba-based egg-alternative company Oggs to get pubs and bars to switch out the egg white in their cocktails. “People are starting to think about an alternative to egg in cocktails. Oggs foams well, has neutral taste, and is less messy and wasteful than egg white. There’s a shortage of bar staff so making cocktails that everyone can drink makes life simpler and reduces labour costs.”
She adds that in such unpredictable times it is crucial that suppliers build strong partnerships with wholesalers and distributers to secure their place in the supply chain. “It’s important to understand the needs of your customer and explain the added value you can create with plant-based menus. Research shows that people who choose plant-based spend more in terms of getting the right meal. With so many vegan products there is a great chance for chefs to be innovative and drive their establishment as a destination and encourage people to eat out.”
One fast-growing European vegan brand is Heura. The Spanish alt-meat producer doubled its turnover in 2021 and is now in 22 countries, including France, Italy, Singapore, Hong Kong, Dubai, and the UK. Founded by animal activists Marc Coloma and Bernat Ananos Martinez, the company’s mission is to save animals by changing what people eat. The brand, named after the Catalan word for ivy, is best known for chicken-style pieces but also makes burgers, sausages, nuggets, and breaded fillets.
Heura’s UK Development Chef is Mitch Lee. He explains that the partnership with Vegetarian Express is an important route into foodservice: “Vegetarian Express provide vegan and vegetarian offerings for contract catering at big offices like Google, and various banks, schools, universities, sports venues and more. They’re regularly promoting our products to help show just how good meat alternatives can be.”
Mitch says a big part of his job is educating chefs and persuading them that meat-free options are tasty, good value, and important for their business: “A steak restaurant might not initially think they need our products, but if there’s a vegan in a group and nothing for them, the group won’t be eating there. Foodservice is very emotive and it’s there for when people meet friends and family. We enable those places to offer inclusive options for everyone to enjoy.”
As Development Chef, Mitch works with chefs and catering companies showing them recipes and demonstrating their products: “They learn about our products and how to use them. So if their default dish is chicken curry, I’ll suggest to them how to make the chicken curry vegan. It will be the same nutritionally, still high protein, and everyone can eat it, rather than making two separate curries. That way from a cost point of view they can streamline their menu.”
“Of course, not all chefs take to plant-based eating immediately. I’ve met some that don’t even want to try the dishes. And for others, it is not a business priority. I demonstrated a Thai curry at a school and the chef wouldn’t taste it. I left some out and he did eventually taste it and said it was better than he expected. I took that as a compliment!”
Mitch believes for plant-based brands inside the foodservice sector and elsewhere, working together and championing other brands is the most important: “There’s lots of space for everyone. If you look at the meat aisle there’s still far more meat than plant-based meat. We still have a long way to go, and it’s bigger than just one brand.”