In the Kitchen
Marketing Insights: December 2016
Eat your vegetables
By Michelle Brisebois
When I was a child, my father told me to eat my vegetables first because they were the worst part of the meal and it was good to get them out of the way. I’m probably not alone. Many baby boomers have been raised to think of vegetables as a necessary evil instead of the main event.
It appears this attitude is changing. In fact, for restaurants that specialize in pasta-based dishes it’s a profound shift. Vegetables are coming into their own and the restaurant industry would be wise to embrace and market to the change.
There are a number of factors influencing the increased popularity of vegetables. Firstly, the “health fad” has proven to be anything but a fad. Consumers are demanding and getting more and more choice when it comes to foods that offer great taste and nutritional value. A good example of this is the introduction of Meatless Monday in 2003 as a way to promote less animal protein consumption. It gained awareness with many restaurants promoting special menus on Mondays. There is also greater awareness around the environmental impact of consuming animal proteins. A study conducted by the University of Oxford suggests a diet heavy in animal proteins causes double the climate-warming emissions, and giving up or reducing meat intake will reduce the carbon footprint more than giving up cars.
Secondly, the trend is also partly driven by fine dining where chefs have taken as much care in attending to the nuances of the sides as they have in preparing the mains. For some time now, vegetables have been quietly shifting from an afterthought to the centre of the plate and their time has arrived. Chef Gary Ludwig of Gordon Food Service reports trends he is monitoring, which include preparing vegetables using searing and braising techniques normally used for protein. These new techniques are imparting unique flavours to the vegetables that make them more appealing, Ludwig says. Proteins are often still a component of the dish but now as a meat-based broth or in smaller portions than traditionally presented. Many sommeliers will tell you that when a chef takes as much care with the side dishes as they do the mains, wine pairings can be made to complement the vegetable instead of the protein for a unique approach.
Thirdly, vegetables aren’t only replacing the protein on the dinner plate: they are increasingly being substituted for the carbohydrate as well. This trend is strongly supported by home cooking, which has embraced the “spiralizing” of vegetables such as zucchini, squash, beets and even broccoli stalks to use in place of pasta in dishes. Kitchenware companies have created tools for the home cook to allow consumers to experiment with spiralizing various vegetables. “Zinguini” is popping up online and in restaurants as a substitute for linguini. Zucchini is replacing lasagna noodles when sliced thin and layered with the traditional filling and sauce for lasagna. Pizza crusts are also showing up with vegetable bases of cauliflower, spinach, zucchini, sweet potato and broccoli, adding flavourful and healthy elements to the crust.
Fourthly, the “ugly” fruits and vegetables trend seen in grocery stores which originated in France – where food trends are still often born. Grocery stores driven by a desire to minimize food waste for environmental reasons began marketing misshapen fruits and vegetables. The stores selling this less than perfect produce saw as much as a 60 per cent increase in traffic to the produce department. When consumer trends are rooted in the triple threat of flavour, health and environmental sustainability, they tend to have momentum and staying power.
Lastly, the rise of the mighty vegetable is being driven by a consumer group of huge importance to the future of dining: millennials. Eve Turow’s book A Taste of Generation Yum: How the Millennial Generation’s Love for Organic Fare, Celebrity Chefs, and Microbrews Will Make or Break the Future of Food examines how great cuisine and dining came to be so important to millennials. Turow points out that in a digital age when technology is prevalent, food is a common ground everyone can bond over. Posting pictures of food on social media has become increasingly common as a way of showing off to friends and online contacts. A 2015 Nielsen survey reports that 33 per cent of millennials said they prioritize healthy attributes in the food they buy and 29 per cent said they will pay more for them.
Taking a fresh look at how vegetables can play a more significant role on your menu can open up many culinary and promotional avenues. With this in mind, I will continue to respect my father’s wish and eat my vegetables first – preferably paired with a nice glass of sparkling wine.
Michelle Brisebois is a marketing professional with experience in the food, pharmaceutical and financial services industries. She specializes in brand strategies.