All Articles Food Restaurant and Foodservice Restaurants craft proprietary plant-based proteins that go beyond off-the-shelf products

Restaurants craft proprietary plant-based proteins that go beyond off-the-shelf products

In the quest to offer more meatless options, some restaurants are producing proprietary plant-based proteins, which allows them to tweak recipes to suit customers’ palates and values, and can offer more control when it comes to costs and product availability.

6 min read

FoodRestaurant and Foodservice

Lekka Burger/Facebook

When restaurants first started adding items to their menus from the new wave of plant-based protein products that aim to closely replicate meat, most opted for burger patties or sausages from Beyond Meat or Impossible Foods. Today, those two behemoth brands are far from the only options for eateries looking to beef up their plant-based offerings. Some restaurants have chosen to produce proprietary plant-based proteins, which allows them to tweak recipes to suit customers’ palates and values, and can offer restaurant companies more control when it comes to costs and product availability.

The evolution of plant-based proteins

When Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods first introduced their takes on meatless burger patties that promised to cook, taste and even bleed like beef, it seemed like these high-tech meat alternatives might carve out a solid niche on quickservice menus. However, despite initial buzz around offerings like Burger King’s Impossible Whopper, excitement for many of these menu options that aim to taste just like a chain’s signature burger or chicken nugget has died down. Early tests of McDonald’s McPlant burger developed with Beyond Meat saw test markets selling about 70 of the burgers a day, according to a report from BTIG analyst Peter Saleh, but a larger rollout of the test saw sales drop to between five and 20 sales per day, Restaurant Business reported.

While having an option like a Beyond burger or Impossible patty that customers can substitute for a beef patty can help restaurants avoid the veto vote from diners who are vegan or looking for a non-meat option, those options don’t do much to inspire repeat business. Having a unique plant-based option that customers can only get at a specific restaurant, however, may keep customers coming back.

Creating new options for burgers and beyond

When California-based fast-casual chicken chain Starbird made the move to expand into meatless options with its Gardenbird virtual brand, it opted to make its plant-based chicken alternative in-house because “other products on the market couldn’t match the texture of real chicken breast meat,” Starbird Director of Marketing Casey Hilder said. 

“Many plant-based chickens were either spongy or mushy, or they were designed to mimic the ground chicken texture of a chicken nugget,” explained Hilder, who said the company’s in-house chicken alternative successfully replicates the texture, look and flavor of whole muscle chicken that has been “challenging to duplicate for plant-based protein companies.”

Chipotle Mexican Grill also took the in-house route when it introduced its first plant-based protein option in 2014 with the tofu-based Sofritas. It’s still on the menu today, and the chain added a second proprietary plant-based option earlier this year with its vegan chorizo that was available nationwide for a limited time.

In August, Taco Bell began a test in Birmingham, Ala., of a proprietary plant-based meat alternative made from soy and pea protein. The chain, which has long been a popular quickservice choice for vegetarians, is also planning to roll out a meatless offering developed in partnership with Beyond Meat by the end of the year, which suggests Taco Bell is keeping its options open when it comes to plant-based proteins.

Taco Bell isn’t the only quickserve chain taking this tack of offering a proprietary meatless option in addition to one from a major brand. White Castle’s menu includes an Impossible Slider that is meant to mimic its classic mini beef burgers as well as a Veggie Slider that has visible chunks of vegetables that may appeal to customers looking for plant-based options that put the plants front and center.

This is a growing consideration for many restaurants as more consumers turn away from plant-based foods they see as overly processed in favor of ones that have more recognizable, whole plant ingredients. Sixty percent of consumers said they prefer plant-based foods that highlight fruits or vegetables instead of mimicking meat, while 40% of consumers prefer plant-based foods that taste like their traditional counterparts, according to a Datassential report fielded in January.

For 11-unit chain Native Foods, putting plants at the center of the plate has always been part of the brand’s strategy, since its core customers are flexitarians “who don’t look at meat as the center of the plate,” CEO Carin Stutz said during a session at the National Restaurant Association Show earlier this year. 

“We were plant-based before it was cool, “ Stutz said of the brand, which was founded in 1994. Native Foods recently started sourcing some plant-based protein products from other brands, but the bulk of its menu components are made in-house, including a take on a po’ boy sandwich made with seasoned fried cauliflower and burgers made with its own signature meatless patty.

One new concept looking to appeal to consumers looking for more plant-forward meatless burgers is Lekka Burger. The New York-based chain aims to be a “vegan version of Shake Shack,” according to co-founder Andrea Kerzner, who teamed with renowned vegan chef Amanda Cohen to develop the chain’s proprietary burger patty. Cohen’s recipe is made with beans, mushrooms and other ingredients that “you can find in your kitchen cabinets,” she told Nation’s Restaurant News.

Proprietary plant-based proteins could give eateries an edge

In addition to “clean label” appeal, another advantage of the kitchen cabinet approach to plant-based foods is that it can give restaurants a reprieve from supply chain issues. Native Foods’ use of proprietary recipes means that if an ingredient is out of stock or doesn’t show up in an order, individual restaurants could potentially replace that one ingredient with another and still make the dish, Stutz said. This flexibility also empowers restaurants to tweak the flavor profile or ingredient makeup of a dish much faster than they would be able to if they had to wait for a supplier to make a change to a product.

Starbird still relies on the supply chain of its protein manufacturer and local distributor, Hilder said, so the proprietary recipe doesn’t help much with supply chain issues. “On the other hand, since the product is unique to Starbird, we don’t have to battle for allocation with other restaurants,” Hilder said.

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