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How Can Foodservice Companies Meet the Demand for Plant-Based Options?


Research shows that plant-based popularity will continue to rise through 2030 and beyond. To stay ahead of the curve, companies need to consider how they can up their game and the benefits of embracing, not resisting, the call for less meat and dairy.

Continued demand for plant-based foods

It’s no secret that consumers have been increasingly adopting flexitarian and vegan dietary habits. In the majority of cases, these are attributed to a growing environmental awareness or a vested interest in personal health. However, the scale of the plant-based sector’s growth appears to be somewhat underplayed.

Data from Mintel Global New Products Database reveals that growth has not only been consistent but also vast. The research found that, in line with a shift in consumer demand, new meat-free products launched with a clear plant-based message increased by 302% between 2018 and 2022. Moreover, this expansion is predicted to push through to 2030 to make the industry a multi-billion dollar sector.

Alongside environmental and wellbeing motivations, consumers also appear to be swayed by the increasing quality of meat and dairy analogues. In recent years, plant-based meat companies in particular have focussed their efforts on creating the most realistic animal protein mimics possible. Such endeavors have resulted in hyper-realistic whole-cut products launching in mainstream grocery stores around the world, thereby granting consumers easy and affordable access to cutting edge developments. This is a far cry from the days of soy-based meat-like products that bore little resemblance to their animal-based counterparts.

Demand for sustainable food options is demonstrably not in decline. This places the onus of accessibility firmly on foodservice operations, across an array of supply niches. These will include QSR outlets, catering companies that supply businesses, the education sector, and health services, and more.

How foodservice companies can step up to the plate

The foodservice sector needs to find a way to satisfy a range of consumers. It isn’t practical to expect sector leaders to ditch meat and dairy altogether, but likewise, they can’t afford to ignore the call for more options that don’t feature them. As such, there are small but meaningful steps that can be taken.

Offer a variety of plant-based options

Developing and serving more plant-based options will allow consumers to recognize that companies are aware and willing to embrace a shift in dietary demands. While it would be a challenging move to immediately provide equal numbers of meat and meat-free options, slowly tipping the balance is achievable.

Global catering giant Sodexo is doing exactly this. Currently, its plant-based menu options make up 36% of its educational supply chain. By 2025, there will be an even 50-50 split between meat and vegan meals.

In the QSR sector, Burger King appears to be leading by example. While competitor McDonald’s stalls with a limited number of plant-based menu items, Burger King has gone so far as to launch fully vegan restaurants and a much larger meat-free menu. Like Sodexo, the fast-food chain aims to be 50% plant-based, but by 2030.

Up the visibility and accessibility of meat-free dishes

Foodservice companies not only need to offer plant-based options, they actively need to promote them. By reinforcing that they are not a specialist alternative but a readily available alternative to conventional menu items, the novelty factor can be negated.

A key step will be labeling foods as vegan or plant-based on menus and highlighting the environmental benefits of them. This has been shown to increase the uptick of such options, even with traditionally meat-eating diners. In addition, meat-free dishes will also need to be included in promotions–such as meal deals– and special events. Tapping into consumers’ desires to be sustainable but not fiscally penalized for being as such is key.

Partner with popular and prolific plant-based food brands

Piggybacking on the success and popularity of an existing plant-based brand is a commercially astute way to garner new customers and meet the growing demand for meat-free foods.

In recent years, there have been a number of key collaborations that have allowed companies to put their best plant-based foot forward. Though McDonald’s has been slower to develop meat-free options, it chose to work with one of the most popular meat mimic companies, Beyond Meat. Likewise, Burger King works with the Vegetarian Butcher to create its meat analogues, which have been deemed indistinguishable from their meat items.

By identifying which brands have garnered their own loyal followings, foodservice outfits can benefit from a readymade consumer base and cross-promotion activities.

Benefits of jumping on the plant-based shift

The upsides of embracing the demand for plant-based foods arguably outweigh any cost needed to do so.

Alongside attracting legions of new customers, businesses can also benefit from positioning themselves as sustainability champion. This issue will only become more important as the climate catastrophe continues to evolve. Additionally, consumers will be impressed and feel ‘seen’ by companies willing to adapt their menus. But it’s not just customer perceptions that stand to improve.

By incorporating more plant-based foods–and subsequently reducing meat and dairy options–foodservice companies can positively alter their operational impact. As pressure grows for the companies to start aligning with net zero ambitions, those that take the leap and actively slash their carbon emissions by reducing the amount of meat and dairy in their supply chain will get a head start.

It would be churlish to ignore the fact that gearing up for a plant-based shift will likely be a costly endeavor for foodservice companies. From training staff to cook with new ingredients to marketing fresh options, there will be significant outlay necessary but the potential benefits are clear to see: more customers and better environmental credentials.

The demand for plant-based foods is growing and as menu items become more sophisticated and satisfying, this will likely only increase. Those companies that can acknowledge and accommodate the major dietary shift that is in progress will be well-positioned for success. Conversely, those who cling to archaic menu development themes will struggle to stay in business.

Amy Buxton