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The Future of US Foodservice: 5 Key Predictions


The US foodservice industry is facing a period of major transformation and it is set to impact every sector player. Key to this upheaval is the rise of consumers becoming more cognizant of the environmental and ethical impacts of their diets. As such, they are demanding more plant-based and sustainable options, which need to be fulfilled by foodservice companies.

Demonstrably, the foodservice industry is already increasingly incorporating meat and dairy-free options into their menus. However, the sector needs to be prepared for ongoing dietary shifts and growing trends.

A new white paper from the Good Food Institute (GFI) offers a comprehensive overview of the future of foodservice and identifies at least five key trends that are set to irreversibly alter the industry:

Plant-based eating will continue to rise

Plant-based foods are becoming increasingly popular, as consumers seek out healthier and more sustainable options. According to GFI, the plant-based food market is expected to reach $1 trillion by 2030. This ties in with an increasing number of consumers adopting flexitarian, vegan, and plant-based diets.

Overall, global consumers are expected to significantly reduce their meat and dairy intake. This is being encouraged by climate experts, who have previously stated that a shift away from animal agriculture is one of, if not the most significant steps that we can take to reduce climate damage.

Animal agriculture is thought to contribute 18% of all greenhouse gas emissions, more than all forms of transportation combined. Breaking this down further, it has been found that meat and dairy account for 57% of all food production emissions. Conversely, plant-based food production is responsible for 29% of all food-related emissions.

Consumers are increasingly aware of how their food choices directly impact the environment, their own health and the wellbeing of animals. This is why all three have been cited as major motivations for people choosing to ditch meat and dairy or at least reduce their intake significantly.

GFI specifically reports that 2022 was a high-performance year and marked a noticeable shift back to pre-pandemic popularity levels for plant-based meats. “U.S. broadline distributor sales of plant-based proteins reached $304 million in 2022, growing 8% from pre-pandemic levels in 2019. Meanwhile, unit sales declined very slightly by 1% over the same period, in line with animal-based meat sales declines,” the report reads.

Growth of fast casual dining will be tangible

Fast casual restaurants offer a more convenient and affordable alternative to traditional sit-down restaurants. They are a valid choice when consumers are pressed for time and they have been shown to be more likely to offer plant-based options than their conventional counterparts.

This presents chains–including QSR giants–with an opportunity to tap into the burgeoning popularity of their dining genre while also catering to a growing market. It is likely that fast casual dining spots will begin to roll out more choices for meat-free eaters and that those who spotlight such consumers will benefit from an increased customer base.

This has already been witnessed as McDonald’s and Burger King vyed to tempt plant-based consumers with their meat-free menu additions in recent years. Where McDonald’s chose to debut the McPlant, and later the Double McPlant, Burger King went further and developed a range of plant-based options including ‘chicken’ sandwiches, nuggets, and signature burgers. As a result, Burger King is deemed the more popular chain and its food, better received.

It’s not just burgers that need to be prioritized though, as GFI confirmed,

“In 2022, products including plant-based chicken, plant-based pork, and plant-based seafood emerged as small but mighty segments, demonstrating that operators are leaning into new product offerings beyond the traditional plant-based burger. Analog products made up 53% of pound sales in plant-based proteins in 2022, up from 39% in 2019,” findings revealed.

Delivery and takeout services will need to step up

As consumers become more time-pressed, home-delivery and takeaway food services are continuing to see a boom in popularity. This is therefore creating new opportunities for plant-based foodservice businesses.

One thing to be aware of, however, is the rising cost of plan-based ingredients. The average price per pound of plant-based proteins grew 9% from 2019 to 2022. While this appears concerning, it is vital to note that animal meat prices increased by 26%. As foodservice companies attempt to protect their margins, these increases will necessarily be passed onto consumers, potentially supporting a further shift away from animal protein.

Delivery and takeout services stand to benefit from loyal consumer bases by offering more plant-based choices, guarantees of no cross-contamination in kitchens that are not exclusively meat-free, and showcasing the better value of animal-free menu items. Carbon neutral delivery options will also likely sway purchasers.

The demand for transparency

Consumers are increasingly demanding transparency about the food they eat. This is driving demand for plant-based foods that are made with high-quality ingredients and with traceable footprints.

This has seen some food manufacturers taking steps to print their carbon footprints on their product packaging while foodservice providers have been experimenting with displaying environmental impact information on menus. There’s no denying that this will incur additional costs, at least in the short-term, but conscious consumers are a valuable customer base.

GFI claims that plant-based meat fans make around 30 more trips to foodservice locations every year than their animal protein counterparts. The result is an average extra spend of $400 annually, demonstrating the commercial viability of catering to this specific consumer genre.

As more individuals experiment with plant-based foods and manufacturers produce increasingly indistinguishable meat analogs, foodservice businesses are on the precipice of being able to capitalize on high-value shoppers, while also catering to their dietary and ethical preferences.

The focus on sustainability

The environmental impact of food choices is becoming a driving factor for consumers when choosing between meat and plant-based protein packed foods. GFI estimates that around 10% of all US consumers bought plant-based meat products at a foodservice location in 2022.  However, most only did so just once.

If foodservice companies can marry consumer curiosity with sustainability concerns, through informed marketing and clear labeling, the plant-based meat category would be well positioned to gain a greater foothold within the foodservice sector. It would not be a stretch to assume that consumers would return more than once, creating greater consumer loyalty to brands and outlets.

These five trends are–according to GFI–shaping the future of foodservice. The main takeaway has to be that as the industry continues to evolve, plant-based foods are likely to play an increasingly critical role.

In addition to these main observations the white paper also discusses other factors that are impacting the future of foodservice. These include the rise of food allergies and intolerances, the increasing popularity of ethnic cuisine, and the growing demand for personalized dining experiences. All of these can also be tied to an intrinsic need for greater plant-based provisions across the global–not just US–foodservice sector.

If you are interested in learning more about the future of foodservice, you can find the original white paper here:

Amy Buxton