Much of the research into and news coverage of the growing plant-based food industry has focused on retail sales and new products on supermarket shelves, but foodservice channels are increasingly becoming a key focus of plant-based culinary innovation.
Plant-based protein shipments to foodservice outlets grew 20% last year, according to NPD Group. The growth comes as outlets including restaurants, corporate cafes, campus dining halls and assisted-living facility dining rooms are expanding their plant-based options in response to growing consumer demands and the changing tastes of their customers.
Burgers were the biggest seller according to NPD, but food makers and foodservice providers are increasingly looking for innovative new products in the plant-based space.
Just this month, Tyson Foods’ investment arm announced an investment in New Wave Foods, to create a version of plant-based shellfish to debut in foodservice channels next year. New Wave worked with the Culinary Institute of America to create a plant-based version of shrimp made from plant protein and seaweed.
The Plant Based Foods Association has developed a guide to plant-based meat, egg and dairy alternatives for the foodservice industry. The digital booklet offers foodservice operators a primer on products including seitan, tofu, tempeh and soymilk and how to use them. And corporate and campus catering companies including Aramark and Sodexo have been expanding their use of plant-based meat alternatives on their menus in response to customer demand.
Last month, Aramark cited data showing that 60% of consumers aim to cut down on meat eating for reasons including health, weight management and climate change. The company has been expanding its plant-based menu with new recipes featuring Beyond Meat products, including Gumbo bowls made with Beyond sausage for hospital menus and Beyond Burgers at the ballparks it serves, the company detailed in an August news release.
Sodexo has also created a whole plant-centric menu and teamed with the Humane Society of the United States to teach its chefs the ins and outs of cooking with plants. The partners launched a menu last year that’s continuing to evolve and now has about 300 different items. The menu is a mix of vegan and vegetarian items, and items like blended burgers that are made with mushrooms that replace about 25% of the beef that would be in a traditional burger.
And recently the company partnered with Impossible Foods to develop new menu items featuring that brand’s plant-based meats.
That partnership is different for Sodexo in that it’s unusual for the foodservice operator to highlight a brand name ingredient on the menu, Senior Director of Culinary Development Rob Morasco said.
“Impossible fits in nicely from the standpoint of plant-forward and plant-based, and we’re really excited about the relationship,” he said.
Offering options and continuing to innovate is key for foodservice operations like Sodexo because, unlike restaurants, their cafeterias, dining halls and other facilities are feeding largely the same group of people each day. And, especially on college campuses, customers are always clamoring for new flavors and innovative menu items.
“Customers are eating with us because we are where they are, so we have to look at not just their needs for today but their needs for down the road,” Morasco said. “About 86% of people who order an Impossible Burger are not vegan or vegetarian, they are just looking to eat less meat.”
The partnership with Impossible Foods and putting the brand on the menu could also be an entry point into plant-based for some consumers, said Ted Monk, Sodexo’s vice president for sustainability.
“I don’t have any data to prove this point, but it seems to me that the Impossible Burger has strong brand recognition,” he said. “If it leads people to try it and then to try other plant-based items, that will continue to strengthen the growth of plant-based.”
Customers who seek out more plant-based options for health and increasingly for the environment don’t want to sacrifice taste, and Sodexo’s chefs developed the new menu items with that in mind.
“The beauty of these plant-based items is that they let you introduce new textures and flavors,” Monk said. “It tastes great and helps you reduce food waste.”
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