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Restaurants embrace plant-based meat alternatives tailored to their brands

Shipments of plant-based meat alternatives to US restaurants soared in April, according to NPD Group data.

5 min read

Restaurant and Foodservice

Restaurants continue to embrace plant-based meat alternatives

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Austin, Texas-based Hopdoddy Burger Bar announced Tuesday that Beyond Meat will be the plant-based meat supplier for its 32 restaurants, making the chain one of the first to put the newest version of the company’s Beyond Burger on the menu. It’s also one of a growing group of restaurant chains beefing up their meatless options, according to industry research.

In recent months, Beyond has also announced deals to supply plant-based meats to Pizza Hut and other Yum Brands’ banners, as well as a three-year agreement with McDonald’s. And last month, the company rolled out its new plant-based Chicken Tenders at about 400 restaurants across the country.

Other plant-based meat companies have also signed new restaurant partners in recent months, including Impossible Foods whose signature plant-based alternative to beef is now featured in three dishes on the menu at Baja Fresh Mexican Grill. 

Baja Fresh is the latest in a line of Impossible’s restaurant partners, including Burger King which built big buzz with the launch of the Impossible Whopper two years ago. And restaurants are slated to be the first stop when Impossible rolls out its new plant-based chicken nuggets.

The latest announcements reflect trends playing out across the restaurant world, from quickserve and fast-casual eateries to fine-dining establishments like Eleven Madison Park where chef/owner Daniel Humm reopened the Michelin-starred restaurant in June with a 100% plant-based menu.

“It was clear that after everything we all experienced this past year, we couldn’t open the same restaurant,” Humm told the Robb Report at the time. “We realized that, not only has the world changed, but we have changed as well.”

Plant-based by the numbers

Restaurants around the country are serving more plant-based meat alternatives, according to data compiled earlier this year by NPD Group. Shipments of plant-based proteins grew 60% in April of this year from the same month last year and 16% from April 2019, according to NPD’s SupplyTrack, which reports on products shipped to more than 700,000 restaurants and foodservice outlets from leading distributors.

“There has been a lot of public discussion about plant-based beef and meat substitutes, and whether or not plant-based is a fad or a trend,” SupplyTrack President Tim Fires said in a statement. “But the fact of the matter is, chefs and operators see the plant-based protein category as a flexible option for developing recipes and menu offerings that taste good, and their guests enjoy. Plant-based is now a staple in their repertoire.”

Plant-based alternatives to beef burgers make up the biggest category of vegan meats shipped to restaurants and the category grew 82% in April from the same month two years ago, followed by plant-based chicken and fish alternatives, two newer and smaller categories. Additionally, traditional plant-based ingredients including tofu, tempeh, nuts and grains also grew, the report says.

The seeds of a growing trend

While shipments of plant-based meat replacements have surged since the pandemic, the rise actually began in earnest more than a year before, according to reports from the Good Food Institute, which tracked plant-based offerings on menus at major US restaurant chains annually in 2017, 2018 and 2019. 

In the report covering 2019, GFI found 58 of the largest US restaurant chains had at least one plant-based item on the menu, compared to 55 the year before. Even more telling, the chains that had already boasted vegan options had added more. 

Burger King’s addition of the Impossible Whopper and two other items made with Impossible products sent the chain to the top of the list of most-improved chains from 2018 to 2019, and other chains that moved up on the list with the addition of new items included Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s, Del Taco, Qdoba, Denny’s and Panda Express. 

The shift has been significant at chains across the country, many of which until very recently offered nothing for the vegetarians and vegans, but courting the veto vote hasn’t been the key reason for changing up menus with plant-based items.

Those changes have largely come as a way to please the growing number of flexitarians — omnivores who are taking animal products off their plates for some meals out of health and/or environmental concerns.

Those consumers are driving growth in the category, which globally is on track to grow from $3.3 billion in 2019 to $13.8 billion by 2027, according to research firm Million Insights. 

Making plant-based their own

One chain that early on saw the benefits of adding a plant-based option was White Castle, which made news in 2018 when it added plant-based Impossible Sliders to the menu. The launch began in April of that year with tests in three markets and by September the small vegan burgers had proved popular enough to roll out to all 377 units. 

Other chains have since built media buzz for their own plant-based efforts, including KFC which did a limited-time launch of plant-based fried chicken at select locations in 2020 after testing the product from Beyond Meat a year before at a single Atlanta unit where it sold out in five hours.

Buzz like that and the rise in interest from consumers and investors in plant-based meats has also spurred more chains to innovate and work with plant-based meat companies to craft items that fit with their familiar concepts, including pizza chain Little Caesar’s partnered with plant-based brand Field Roast to create a topping for the new Planteroni pizza which debuted in five US markets last month. 

“It just goes to show there’s not just one way to do plant-based,” GFI’s Zak Weston said in an interview last year. “Plant-based isn’t a silver bullet. It has to fit with your brand, your values and your customer base, so it will look different in different concepts.”


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