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Creating plant-forward menus that serve the planet, consumers and the bottom line

More and more consumers are showing interest in plant-forward diets because they know they’re better for their own health and the health of the planet. Finding ways to cater to customers’ plant-forward tastes and innovate with new dishes and practices that benefit the environment and boost the bottom line will be key to the next chapter of the plant-forward movement, chefs said during The Culinary Institute of America’s virtual Global Plant-Forward Culinary Summit.

Three chefs from different corners of the culinary world discussed how each of their companies is approaching innovation and sustainability to craft plant-forward menus and products that serve all stakeholders.

Listen to your customer

“There’s so much to be excited about when it comes to plant-forward cuisine. More and more, consumers are understanding the link between what you put in your body every day and its effect not only on your body but on the environment, whether it’s animal welfare, carbon footprint, pollution, deforestation -- all of these really important issues,” said Christina Gutierrez-Williams, director of culinary development at Thistle, a California-based company that delivers plant-based meals, snacks and juices. 

“We’re certainly propelled by the increased interest in plant-based eating. That being said, we recognize that plant-based eating is...a challenge for some people, so one of the things we’re trying to do at Thistle through all of our plant-forward meals is make it more accessible,” she said.

Delivering ready-to-eat meals directly to customers’ doorsteps is part of Thistle’s accessibility ethos, which is also reflected in the menu. Thistle approaches food in a “flexitarian” way, with a mostly plant-based menu that includes options for those who are “plant-forward curious,” Gutierrez-Williams said. The bulk of Thistle’s menu is plant-based, but customers can opt to add sustainable animal protein to some meals, although most customers do end up choosing vegan options.

Letting customers ease into plant-based eating has been a successful strategy for Thistle, and making sure food is craveable is key to retaining customers, Gutierrez-Williams said. “We want to make it clear that plant-based eating can be a celebration, it doesn’t have to be a sacrifice,” she said.

Thistle aims to provide a wide variety of meals and uses customer surveys to gather feedback that the company uses to refine its menu. The company launched with a line of juices and energy shots before expanding into salads and other on-the-go meals, and it has adapted its menu amid the pandemic to include meals “much more suited to time at home,” such as taco kits and baked pasta dishes.

Chipotle Mexican Grill’s Chad Brauze also underscored the importance of using data and customer feedback to drive menu innovation. Brauze, who is executive chef of culinary and menu development for the fast-casual Mexican chain, said the decision to add cauliflower rice to the menu was driven by data. “Customers told us they wanted to see it,” he said.

In addition to serving the growing consumer demand for plant-forward foods, Chipotle’s investment in adding more plant-based foods is driven by a desire to support sustainable food production and to bolster its bottom line.

“Meat’s not getting cheaper. Plants are the future,” Brauze said.

Think about food from plant to package

Brauze said Chipotle is “ruled by plants and farmers.” Of the 52 ingredients the chain uses to make all of its dishes, more than 40 are plants or plant-based, and supporting farmers is part of the company’s mission. Chipotle has pledged to spend $5 million over the next five years to help empower the next generation of farmers and ranchers to succeed.

“If you want to design sustainable products, talk to a farmer, start with the farmer,” Brauze said.

Taking an active role in how food is grown and produced before it gets to the restaurant gives chefs and restaurant operators insight into where their ingredients come from, and lets them support initiatives that contribute to a more sustainable food system. 

Crop rotation is one area that Chipotle is focusing on with its farmer partners. 

“We buy a lot of corn for corn salsa, but corn eats a lot of nitrogen from the soil. So we start to think, ‘what are these farmers using to fix the nitrogen back in their soil. Is it a legume? How do we get those legumes into our food?’” Brauze said. 

“Maybe they’re using alfalfa or clover to nitrogen fix, how do we get that into our cattle feed, how do we get that into our pig feed? How do we make a better planet through our purchasing?”

Biodiversity is also a top concern for Unilever, according to Evert Vermandel, lead innovation chef for Unilever Food Solutions Global, which is working to include a wider range of ingredients in its food products. In addition to being better for the environment, biodiversity also makes for more diverse and delicious menus, he said.

Showing consumers that sustainability plays a role in sourcing and production choices can help restaurants and food companies connect with customers who share the same values. One area that is becoming increasingly important to consumers is packaging. Vermandel said all of Unilever Food Solutions’ packaging will be “sustainable in the near future,” and Gutierrez-Williams said Thistle is investing heavily in sustainable packaging.

“For a very long time we’ve focused on the food and how we can make our food check a lot of boxes -- be convenient, accessible, nutritious and delicious, all while being plant-forward,” she said. 

“We know that that’s...the single most impactful thing you can do to reduce your carbon impact. That being said, packaging is a big issue for all of us in the food space and something really that matters a lot to consumers.”

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