Last fall I attended a two-day expo at the Javits Center sponsored by the Plant Based Food Association called Discover the Future of Plant-Based. 200 plus exhibitors were on the floor ranging from suppliers and marketing firms to providers of extremely technical equipment that process the foods. Additionally, there were also about 50 speakers and demos covering dozens of educational/informational sessions.
Prior to the expo my knowledge of a full plant-based diet was rather limited; my vegetarian wife had been encouraging me for years to reduce the amount of meat in my diet, and I went from 80% meat/20% vegetarian to roughly 40/60—we have not had real milk or butter in our refrigerator for years and I did experience some improved health results.
To identify how meatless choices influence the catering business, it’s time to look toward an understanding of what is on the mind of the public who book and attend your events.
Niche or market segment?
A logical guidepost to defining the market is to quantify practicing vegetarians and vegans; depending on the source, it is estimated that about 1.5% to 5% of the US population fits into these two categories.
Issues of climate change, water conservation, and ethical treatment of animals have been the catalyst for drawing more attention to meatless diets as a possible solution to these crises. There is also increasing awareness by an educated public; for example, of understanding the full effects of animal farming, such as the amount of nitrogen-based fertilizer that is added to the soil, and the effect it has on greenhouse gas emissions.
A Plant-Based Guide for Caterers
1. Talk to your suppliers and get a consolidated listing of vegan, vegetarian, and plant-based products.
2. Buy smaller shelf-stable packages of food to use as enhancing ingredients.
3. Research recipes from reputable sources and test them out. If you don’t like them, chances are your guests won’t either.
4. Use ingredients associated with the meat option to create an associative link in the consumer’s taste buds. Examples can include barbecue sauce, curry, molé, Asian-inspired marinades and dressings, or fruit coulis for desserts.
5. What items do you already serve that can easily be adapted or already fall into the market definition?
6. Go out and experience restaurants that specialize in this market and see what items were impressive.
7. Look at menus and reviews online and see what items are popular that you can make in your own style.
8. Identify options on your menus in very clear terms.
9. Develop attractive labeling methods for items on buffets and utilize expressive icons for identification.
The growing prevalence of plant-based diets is evidenced through the growing number of “fast food” style restaurants who are now adopting some form of meatless menu. Additionally, several high-end restaurants are also getting in on the trend. For example, New York City restaurateur Jean-George Vongerichten’s newest venture, abcV, states that it aims “to serve, inform, and inspire a cultural shift towards plant-based intelligence, through creativity and deliciousness. Offering high vibration foods, embracing balance with beauty, wellness, wisdom, and love to nurture our personal and planetary ecosystems.” Vongerichten has also opened Seeds & Weeds at the Tin Building in New York City, focusing solely on plant-based and vegan dishes.
The Generation Z, Millennial, and ethos effect
The most stimulating presentation I heard at the expo was from author Eve Turow-Paul, a recognized leading expert on Millennial and Generation Z global food culture, and founder and Executive Director of Food for Climate League. I read her book “Hungry” which reveals behaviors backed by detailed research on the sociological and psychological drivers behind how and why some of the food patterns that exist today have developed.
“The global eco-wakening is driving a greener future with over 87% of Americans seeking more sustainable hotels and travel,” said Alan E. Young, Co-Founder and President of Puzzle Partner, for Hotel-online.com, and this trend is conceptually in concert with the minds choosing a meatless menu.
Vegetarian, Vegan, Plant-Based...A Matter of Definition
Understanding the difference between vegetarian, vegan, and plant-based could put one into a Google tailspin. Here is a summary that reflects what most would agree upon, and that freestanding caterers and catering departments should understand:
The Plant Based Foods Association (plantbasedfoods.org) defines plant-based as “Foods made from plants that contain no animal derived ingredients.”
Being vegan is as much about lifestyle choices as it is about what you eat. Vegans consume no food that comes from animals (such as meat, eggs, or dairy products), and who also abstain from using animal products such as leather, fur, or even wool. They also avoid animal ingredients in cosmetics (such as dyes made from insects), perfumes with components from animal scent glands, and other items. Vegans also often reject products that have been tested on animals. However, not all people who call themselves vegans strictly adhere to all these restrictions.
There are some foods that are considered non-vegan even though they are not meat or dairy. Honey is typically considered non-vegan because it’s a product of honeybees. Some products are considered non-vegan, not because they contain animal products, but because they’re processed with them. For example, some sugars are considered non-vegan due to being processed using a product from animal bone.
A vegetarian diet is often primarily plant-based. The main difference is that vegetarians eat non-meat animal products, especially dairy products and eggs, which are often used as primary protein sources. Some foods sometimes considered non-vegetarian are not obvious. For example, cottage or parmesan cheese is produced using animal tissue known as rennet; some beers include a fish-derived gelatin known as isinglass (also used in the clear window openings you see in tent sides). Many desserts, candies, and even Jell-O® use gelatin whose natural form is animal tissue in the form of a protein extracted from the skins and bones of certain animals. After the gelatin in the flavored powder is dissolved in boiling water and then cooled it forms the gelatinous, semi-solid jiggly substance many of us know from our youth. Still, not every vegetarian avoids all these products.
- Pescatarian: Eats a mostly vegetarian diet, but also eats fish and seafood as well.
- Flexitarian: Largely plant-based, but occasionally eats meat, fish, and poultry.
- Lacto-ovo vegetarian: Avoids meat, poultry, and fish but makes allowances for eggs and dairy products.
- Lacto vegetarians: Eat a plant-based diet and dairy products, but avoid meat, seafood, and eggs.
- Ovo vegetarians: Avoids meat, seafood, or dairy products, they do eat eggs and products that contain eggs.
In addition to generational philosophies, another factor, which I feel is a major driver, is the philosophy on health and well-being related to plant-based diets; and this doesn’t even consider the idea that many meatless foods avoid the barriers of gluten-free, most allergy sensitivities, and in many cases are non-GMO. You would be hard-pressed to find a doctor or dietician who did not agree that well-planned diets along these lines protect against obesity, metabolic syndrome, and cardiovascular disease.
Even the Mayor of New York City, Eric Adams, practices plant-based foods. He ran on a platform that included focusing on improving preventative care, teaching healthy habits, and making school lunches healthier. “I’m going to be a broccoli mayor,” said Adams, who went vegan after being diagnosed with diabetes. Adams also helped with the implementation of Meatless Monday, which provides 1.1 million students with healthy, all-vegetarian breakfast and lunch menus. Adams is further advocating for its adoption in public schools, prisons, government buildings, and hospitals.
Despite the positives, there is some dissention, however, over the positive effects of meatless foods, citing lack of certain vitamins like B-12, adequate protein, high calorie content (like many cauliflower crust pizzas), and the effect of processing methods themselves; for example, coconut oil is used to create sizzle in many foods but is very high in saturated fats.
It tastes just like...
While sampling dozens of foods at the expo, the phrase “It tastes just like...” was repeated by vendors on countless occasions. Converting someone completely from meat-eater to meatless is difficult at best, but there can be ground gained in a selective and gradual approach, and that is where I feel catering is best served.
When the Impossible and Beyond Burgers made their debut several years ago, I set up a tasting, inviting an all-male group to sample some hamburgers the chef had prepared; however, the participants were told they would be testing out a new hamburger bun. Not a single person in the group detected, or made any negative comments about, the fact that there wasn’t any meat in the burger itself. In fact, they were quite surprised when they found out.
When talking about meatless alternatives, some of the current challenges include:
- Price. Many of the products are expensive and are packed for the home consumer market. Major vendors like Sysco and US Foods are increasing the number of products they carry, and in some cases categorizing them for easy reference.
- Popularity of meat and traditional dairy foods. Let’s face it, we are by and large a meat-eating country and there are many societal, cultural, and taste habits that sustain this.
- The texture/taste issue. As mentioned above, this is a hurdle. Some of the items I sampled were very good, a "smoked salmon" that I could not tell had no seafood whatsoever in it, and a ‘bacon’ that sizzled, smelled and was very close in taste to real bacon. There were however many items that were sub-par in both taste and mouth-feel (the texture of meat just has a singular quality that is very difficult to replicate).
The world of plant-based foods is constantly evolving, so it’s in every caterer’s best interest to stay abreast of this growing market.