What Plant-based Diets Mean for Bars and Restaurants

Buddha bowl! Image: Gingagi / iStock / Getty Images Plus

One of the buzziest buzzwords in the bar and restaurant world is “plant-based.”

Social Standards, a platform that tracks and analyzes consumer behavior, has turn their attention to social media conversations that mention the terms “plant-based,” “plant-derived,” and “fueled by plants.”

What they’ve found clarifies a few misconceptions and will help bar and restaurant operators refresh their menus to give guests what they want.

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What’s all this, then?

Before diving into the Social Standards report, a word on what plant-based means. One of the first things to know is that the term isn’t new: a biochemist came up with it in 1980. And then there’s the big question: What does it mean?

Some believe plant-based foods are completely free of animal products, while others believe they’re mostly free of animals. There are people who say a plant-based diet is entirely meat-free. And some say a plant-based diet consists of eating more plants than meat.

It’s generally accepted that “plant-based” appeals to consumers who want to signal their commitment to eating healthier, sustainability, and reducing the harm done to the planet and animals. Social Standards findings support this generalization.

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The top three interests of plant-based consumers, as identified by Social Standards, are vegan and vegetarian food, animals, and sustainability. The platform found that animal welfare is three times as important to plant-based consumers than health and the environment.

Who’s talking about this?

According to Social Standards data, vegetarians and people new to plant-based diets. In January of last year, conversations about plant-based diets and products reached a zenith. New consumers accounted for 43 percent of those discussions, and that number held mostly steady since. Vegetarians conversations about plant-based food and diet have increased by 3.3 percent.

In terms of gender, race and economic demographics, basically everyone is having conversations about plant-based topics. Those who identify as women, those aged 30 to 64, and those earning $20,000 per year and on are talking about it the most.

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And that leads to who isn’t talking about, so to speak. Vegan conversations about plant-based topics have dropped 2.1 percent. Plant-based consumers are conversing about vegan topics nearly one percent less, and vegetarians have reduced conversations about vegetarian topics by 4.6 percent.

What do plant-based consumers want?

As stated above, like many people, plant-based consumers want to improve their relationships with the environment and animals. In short, they don’t want to harm either.

When it comes to their own health, Social Standards found that plant-based consumers are interested in improving heart and gut health. When the platform removes mentions of general terms like “wellness” and “nutrition,” the top specific health interests are revealed:

  • Heart health: Cholesterol-free, healthy fat, heart health.
  • Gut health: Gut, microbiome

Plant-based consumer interests in fasting and intermittent fasting indicate a shift in consumer dining habits, something operators should be aware of and monitor in their bars and restaurants. It’s safe to say that these consumers want to live a healthier lifestyle and desire specific food items to achieve that goal.

What do they want on the plate?

This is the real question for operators—it directly affects menus and sales. The top foods appearing in plant-based-focused social media conversations are:

  • Chickpeas (legume)
  • Jackfruit (fruit)
  • Chia (seed)
  • Quinoa (seed)
  • Cashews (nut, legume or seed, depending on who’s talking about them)
  • Maca (vegetable)
  • Spirulina (vegetable)

Plant-based consumers are eating more than just vegetables. Remember, this diet isn’t focused solely on vegetarian or vegan elements. They’re also eating more than salads—they want variety:

  • Tofu scramble
  • Buddha bowls
  • Nice cream (blending frozen fruit—bananas are popular—until it’s rich and creamy)
  • Green juice
  • Smoothies
  • Hummus
  • Acai bowls

Compared to a “typical” F&B consumer, a plant-based eater is more than fives times as likely to choose a tofu scramble. Burger alternatives may be attracting the lion’s share of traditional and social media mentions, but tofu is, as far as Social Standards data is concerned, the top meat alternative among plant-based consumers. Conversations about tofu are five times more prevalent than those about veggie and bean burgers, which are down 12 percent year-over-year. Mentions of seitan, a meat alternative made of hydrated gluten, are up 28 percent year-over-year, and jackfruit is up 17 percent.

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Tofu may at the top in terms of conversations but there are two meat-alternative juggernauts that can’t be ignored. Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger are the dominant plant-based meat alternative brands, with Beyond in the number one slot. According to two profiles Social Standards created to demonstrate the differences between Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger fans, the former appeals more to Gen Xers with a preference for traditional American fare, whereas the latter is preferred by Millennials interested in adventurous dining experiences.

When it comes to plant-based beverages, alternative “milks” (almond, coconut, oats, cashew, etc.) lead the way. Social Standards found that while almond and coconut milks are the top non-dairy milks by volume, almond and cashew milks are most appealing to plant-based consumers. Conversations about established brands like Almond Breeze and Ripple are declining, and while Califia Farms is top of the pack, Oatly is catching up to them. This is likely due to the fact that oat-based non-dairy milks require less water and land resources to produce than almond-based milks.

The takeaway.

Plant-based diets and food items are no longer niche dining options—they’ve gone mainstream. Operators can’t be all things to all guests, but they can keep up with consumer dining trends and find ways to leverage them. The keys, as always, are ensuring plant-based options are authentic to the brand, understanding the different diets (keto, paleo, etc.) and dietary restrictions, contribute to the guest experience, strike a balance between familiar and adventurous, tying kitchen and bar programs together with cross-utilization, and making certain team members are given the training and resources to discuss these options confidently.

Hungry for more? Kyle Gaan, research analyst at The Good Food Institute, will address plant-based foods at Nightclub & Bar Show 2020 during his session “Capitalize on the Shift to Plant-Based Eating.” A collection of the best chefs in the industry, led by Chef Brian Duffy, will tackle culinary trends, menu engineering, tips and live demos at the Food & Beverage Innovation Center. Register today!

Resources

Plant-Based Food & Beverages.” Social Standards. January 2020.

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