How Restaurants Can Offer More Plant-based Options, and Why They Should

The number of U.S. adults following a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle has definitely increased over the past few decades, and especially in the 2020s. Though there isn’t sufficient data to determine exactly how many people adhere to these lifestyles, the overall trend is clear: The plant-based movement has increased steadily and doesn’t show signs of dropping.

A 2022 survey found that more than half of Americans now consider themselves to be following a vegetarian diet at least some of the time. Probably fewer than one percent of U.S. adults were vegetarian/vegan in the mid-1990s, which increased to around three percent by the mid-2000s, and now has reached somewhere in the range of six to 15 percent.

And among U.S. adults who have kept meat as a regular part of their diet, their consumption patterns are changing. In fact, U.S. consumption of beef and pork has steadily dropped to almost half of what it was in the 1970s.

That means restaurant menus are changing too to meet the demand for plant-based or vegan options. Even major food service brands like Burger King, KFC, Taco Bell and Cracker Barrel have all added meatless alternatives to their menus within the last few years, following countless independent restaurants that have led the way.

So, how can restaurant operators that serve animal products meet the needs of the growing number of customers who want to eat less meat and dairy than the standard American diet? It’s not as hard as you might think.

 DC Vegan Calamari
DC Vegan in Washington, D.C. is known for its Italian American vegan dishes, such as calamari (pictured). (Photo by: Rey Lopez / Courtesy of DC Vegan)

The Basics: Incorporate Alternative Proteins and Dairy Products

At an absolute minimum, restaurants should offer plant-based protein swaps for some of their most popular menu items.

Michael Jantz Moon is co-owner at DC Vegan, a dual-concept restaurant in Washington, D.C., with a deli upstairs and a bar serving full entrees downstairs. The owners of DC Vegan recently helped another restaurant update their menu with more vegan options.

“I think if people really looked at their ingredients across concepts – from the taco place to the pizza place to the hot dog cart – there’s products all around that you can use to offer vegan food,” Moon said. “The most obvious thing is to leverage those products that are already in the marketplace.”

Among alternative meat products, a 2023 report from Food & Beverage Close-Up found burger patties and chicken-style products to have the two largest shares in the global plant-based meat market. So to start, burgers and chicken dishes might be the easiest items to offer alternative options for on your menu. Moon said it’s easy to provide simple vegan substitutes for these and other meats because whatever supplier a restaurant already orders from, it’s highly likely that supplier stocks plant-based meats from brands like Beyond Meat or Impossible Foods. Likewise, they probably have alternative dairy products available from big brands like Follow Your Heart (cheese and mayonnaise substitutes) and Earth Balance (butter substitutes).

“So right away, all your aioli should be vegan,” Moon said as an example. “It’s the same thing, but it’s better. Veganaise is better than mayonnaise, so you get a better product.”

Level up: Get Creative with Other Ingredients You Already Have

To offer more exciting dishes that will be specifically appealing to plant-based diners, Moon suggests starting with the ingredients you already stock and consider new ways of preparing and presenting them. “Dive into your menu, take a look at your ingredients,” he said. “There’s probably a ton of ingredients that are vegan. Do you sell cauliflower? Could you do a roasted cauliflower pasta?”

Another vegan chef agrees with that approach: Chris Hodge, founder of Atlanta’s first all-vegan brick-and-mortar taqueria, Chi Chi Vegan.

“If you have vegetables on your menu, you already have some vegan options,” Hodge said. “We just have to get creative with how we are addressing the consumer and creating new menu items with things we already have in our store.”

Plant-based -  Chi Chi Vegan - Chris Hodge
At Chi Chi Vegan in Atlanta, Chef Chris Hodge takes inspiration from her global travels to create unique tacos and other dishes. (Photo: Courtesy of Chi Chi Vegan)

Chi Chi Vegan is known for the creativity of its tacos, which are inspired by both local and international flavors, but some of the preparation methods used there could easily be replicated by any restaurant, vegan or not. For example, Chi Chi Vegan’s fried green tomato taco veganizes a Southern favorite by using a corn flour-based breading that doesn’t require egg. Others like the carne asada taco use the same seasonings and marinades as their classic counterparts, just without the animal products.

“Season vegetables and proteins the same way you would season regular meat,” Hodge advises. “You can treat it the exact same way.”

Above and Beyond: Make Sure Plant-based Diners Know You’re There for Them 

After you’ve figured out how to take advantage of easy-reach ingredients to create new vegan and vegetarian options, the next step is convincing potential customers who follow those lifestyles that your restaurant is worth a visit.

Hodge said a lot of vegans in Atlanta seek out her taqueria because they know it’s a safe environment for them, without the risk of cross-contamination from animal products. To accommodate vegan customers, omnivorous restaurants might want to consider ways to mitigate cross-contamination as well.

“For any restaurant owners who are looking to have less cross contamination, my No. 1 suggestion is to have a station that's strictly for vegan and gluten-free,” Hodge said. She suggests having a second line dedicated to that purpose, as well as clearly labeling all ingredients and pre-made dishes so staff always know exactly which ones are vegan and can easily communicate that information to customers.

Chi Chi Vegan Taco
At Chi Chi Vegan, breadings, sauces and seasonings are designed to achieve certain classic taqueria tastes without any animal products. (Photo: Courtesy of Chi Chi Vegan)

Don’t Get Skipped Over – Make It Clear You Offer Vegan Dishes vs. Plant-Based

In the opposite corner of the country, Waz Wu is deeply familiar with Portland’s restaurant scene. She directs Veganizer PDX, which collaborates with both vegan and mainstream chefs to offer pop-up events in a city known for its abundance of meatless and dairy-free options. Wu has noticed that when friends are choosing a restaurant, if there’s even just one vegan among them, the group will specifically seek a place that can accommodate that person. It’s important for restaurants to make it explicitly clear which dishes are vegan, so they don’t get skipped over in that search.

One way they can do that: If a dish is completely free of animal products, label it “vegan” on the menu, not “plant-based.” These two terms don’t mean the same thing.

“Now that the plant-based movement is trending… a lot of brands and restaurants are using the term ‘plant-based’ to mean ‘mostly plants,’ and then sometimes they serve [an animal product] in there,” Wu said. “So a lot of vegans no longer trust the term ‘plant-based.’”

Another tip from Wu is to be careful about abbreviated labels like “v,” “vg,” or “veg.” It isn’t always clear to customers which of these labels means “vegan” versus “vegetarian.” If a vegan diner is researching menus before visiting a restaurant and those labels aren’t clearly decoded, they might not make the effort to come in and ask for clarification.

Since vegan customers are unlikely to follow a non-vegan restaurant on social media, they might not see when an omnivorous restaurant posts about their vegan options. So Wu recommends partnering with a local vegan organization or influencer to make sure you’re reaching that audience. When omnivorous restaurants partner with Veganizer for pop-up events, for example, vegans in the community learn about the options that restaurant has for them.

“I think that’s where Veganizer has been really successful – it is a recognized brand in the vegan community, and people can trust that ‘I know this will be vegan, and it will be good,’” Wu said.

Wu suggests pulling inspiration from Portland restaurants like kann, which offers a separate vegan menu for easy browsing; Jojo, which lists all of their vegan options on one side of the menu and everything else on the other side; and The Sports Bra, which serves many dishes vegan by default with the option to add meat if desired.

Cat Kerr is based in Atlanta and has worked in cafe operations and service since 2018. She writes about vegan food and tea and is an occasional contributor to Questex’s World Tea News and Bar & Restaurant.


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