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Is it time chefs embrace the vegetable?

Updated: Oct 13, 2018

“To beef or not to beef – that is the question!” This was the battle cry of Italian butcher Dario Cecchini as he presented his bistecca alla Fiorentina at Curtice Brothers’ London launch of their ketchup brand in May.

The steak was fantastic, the tartar (“Italian sushi”) even better, and I’ve rarely eaten so much rare meat as I did that evening. In fact it was an evening celebrating beef as much as ketchup.

Such an event – ironically hosted during “vegetarian week” – also prompted a number of discussions about the future of meat in our diets, whether at home or dining out. Will we see a long-term shift away from meat? Is this a short-lived or purely metropolitan fad? And if it is a lasting trend, how should the restaurant industry and its suppliers respond?

It is interesting how the answer tends to correlate with a respondent’s age. Most under-40s will say “yes”, most over-60s tend to say “no”. Of course one could ask what youngsters know of the future as they haven’t seen much of the past yet but I would place my bet with the millennials as the case against meat-based diets is certainly a strong one when looking at the evidence.

A major scientific study reported earlier this week in the Guardian argues that huge reductions in meat consumption are essential in the fight against climate change. It stated: “In western countries, beef consumption needs to fall by 90% and be replaced by five times more beans and pulses.” This conclusion is not new but the message is making its way on to the national agenda.

Links between eating too much meat and a whole range of diseases have also been common knowledge for some time, with the implications rapidly entering mainstream dietary choices.

There seems to be growing awareness and concern about animal welfare and the responsibility each individual has through their dietary choices. Much of this is fuelled by the increasingly industrialised methods of animal production required to feed so many people at such low prices – and the fact YouTube has opened the windows for everyone to see what that looks like. Bismarck once noted the making of politics, like the making of sausages, is not a pretty sight. This also goes for modern animal farming and meat production.

Finally, it seems most people find it relatively easy to cut down on meat and find great-tasting alternatives thanks to imaginative recipes and menus, a growing number of plant-based products on the supermarket shelves, and a realisation one can eat very well without meat-based proteins driving the meal.

New industries are also emerging in response. California-based Impossible Food attracts millions of dollars from investors and has created a plant-based burger to rival many beef options in taste and texture. And Ikea, which sells more than 100 million hotdogs globally a year – achieved a 17% market share with its new veggie dog in initial test markets within a month.

So what are the implications for the restaurant industry? Firstly, my advice to most players would be to embrace this trend regardless of whether it turns out to be long-lasting or fades away in a few years.  

I’ve seen so many ambitious and quality-driven chefs up to Michelin-star level create menus that can’t be eaten by vegans, even in 2018. In one case, for example, I took a menu card in a food hall and crossed out everything a vegan couldn’t order. What remained was a starter, a salad and a dessert – hardly customer-focused menu planning in the centre of a big western metropolis.

We still seem to be in the early stages of the product life cycle when it comes to shifts away from meat, and restaurants that offer a strong vegan and vegetarian component have a great opportunity to cater to this early-adopter audience. It gives an opportunity to tell the story on social media and allows restaurateurs to reach a still mostly female target group – one that often seems to be the decision-maker in choice of venue.

This is a key point. Instead of reluctantly adding plant-based choices to a menu, there is an opportunity to innovate, communicate and engage with an audience that cares about the food it eats.

For suppliers, my advice would be don’t ignore the trend as an insignificant fad that’s bound to go away. I recently had a conversation with the chief executive of a leading importer of speciality products – mostly meat-based – about whether to add a line of quality, plant-based “meat substitutes”. It might come in the future, was the thinking, but not now. Two weeks later the company received the first customer request and it has started to explore the market and source the right products. Again, there is an opportunity to stay innovative, knowledgeable and relevant to one’s customers.

It reminds me of conversations I had as a management consultant with media companies in the 1990s, when the internet was still something most people had only read about. The idea print – or even the nascent CD ROM – could be replaced by “online” access was seen as ludicrous and not something to worry about, let alone invest in. Only the change-ready remain.

Just like the internet, a substantial shift away from meat-based proteins will pose significant challenges to many restaurants’ business model. A key problem with increased vegetarianism or veganism for restaurateurs is it fundamentally changes the game. Meat dishes are generally priced higher than plant-based dishes. While there may be some margin gain on vegetable-based dishes compared with animal protein, this doesn’t totally compensate for the revenue reduction. With fixed overheads, this is a worry for many. The problem is compounded by removing high-priced “trade-up” options, such as expensive beef cuts, which traditionally return a high cash margin. And will the decent-vintage Chateauneuf seem much more expensive when the food bill is lower? Chefs may need to learn a new culinary vocabulary if meat is not allowed, as must front of house.

As with everything else, we can’t predict the future but we can make the most of the present – and right now that seems to include embracing the “vegetable forward” trend with all its opportunities and challenges.

Originally published in Propel.


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