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Demand for plant-based foods the focus of international conference


A panel featured a frank discussion of how the restaurant and food industries can build trust, build brand loyalty and make their plant-based items stand out. From left, Peter Henderson, Ideovation; Kiki Adami, Veganizer; Kathy Hunter, Envision Group-Compass Group Canada; and Gino Cantalini, Giants & Gentlemen Advertising.

Global Summit Plant Powered Menus, a new event held in Toronto in November, took a deep dive into demand for plant-based food and brought together the foodservice industry with consultants and manufacturers to figure out where the plant-based trend train is going and how restaurants can get on board.

Making the most of your menu
The conference presented well-focused learning sessions. A break-out panel on menu optimization featured four points of view. Kiki Adami is a consultant who works under the name Veganizer to help restaurants introduce plant-based foods and principles into their business operations. Adami worked with businesses like Gigi Pizzaria in Sydney, Australia. Knowing that three per cent of people in Sydney eat pizza every day, the pizzeria decided to embrace a vegan menu. Leave politics at the door in favour of great food, a great experience and, on the operator side, making money, Adami advised. And don’t kid yourself: food costs will go up, labour costs will go up, you’ll need to create more recipes and you’ll need to do more staff training. It’s important to compete but don’t alienate regular customers. “You want to make sure no one is putting their fists up before they even eat,” Adami said. She recommends operators and managers train staff to develop “emotional intelligence” when serving customers. You can do this by role playing. Answer a question with a question to determine if a customer needs extra attention to their diet and menu choices. When that’s the case, pull out a special, detailed menu. Certain customers will welcome that level of detail, she said. “Hire a millennial or generation Z. Get annoying people to ask you questions and put together a fierce FAQ,” she urged.

Sharon Palmer provided one dietitian’s perspective on the panel. Palmer, author of The Plant-Powered Dietitian, often works with hospitals and health-care food service to develop healthier menus. She said places such as seniors homes in the United States are competing for prospective residents and upping their game by creating more variety and plant-based dishes on their menus. She also works with Oldways, a toolkit for introducing and integrating 100 per cent plant-based meals in to hospitals and health-care food service.

Zak Weston, a foodservice analyst with think tank the Good Food Institute, said that words and descriptions such as “tasty,” “delicious” and “familiar” scored high in the Institute’s research polls. “If you’re going to introduce a new thing, make it just one thing,” Weston suggested. “People are concerned about health – but scream taste, whisper health.”

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Amanda Topper, associate director and foodservice analyst with Mintel, reported that health and taste are leading repeat purchase drivers in the U.S. More than half of U.S. consumers disagree that a meal must contain meat to be complete but, generally speaking, “consumers agree meat alternatives should mimic the taste of meat,” she said. Among challenges in Canada are perceptions that plant-based alternatives don’t taste as good as the foods they replace and that they are expensive. (See our Q-and-A with Topper.)

The lunch menu included a black bean and beef sliders inspired by Pulse Canada and featuring Griffith Foods Fibre Enriched Country Ketchup; Gardein’s baja-style fishless filets garnished with red onion and lime with cabbage slaw; and cilantro, cumin and tofu cream; and roasted root vegetables dressed with maple syrup and thyme.

The future of plant-powered products and menus
Trends, recipe and formula development experts shared insights about what is next for those adding plant-powered dishes to their menus or product lines. Dana McCauley, director of New Venture Creation at the University of Guelph, hosted the panel. Asad Amin, vice-president of market strategy and understanding for Ipsos Canada, said the demand for plant-based foods is not a blip in the market – it’s not going away. Ipsos polling indicates demand for meat protein is going down, demand for vegetarian meals are fairly flat, but demand for non-meat protein is only going up. He said flexitarians are a diverse group to watch.

Dave Bender, global vice-president of research and development for Griffith Foods, said the company’s international sales show this demand is growing worldwide. Griffith, which helps companies develop their back-of-house, has 342 R&D associates worldwide developing dry blends, bakery products, liquids, flavours, pastes and other products. Benefits of alternative proteins include protein, sustainability and nutrition. The company is thinking ahead to other proteins such as micro-organisms and insects. Taste and texture is the biggest obstacle.

Amy Proulx, professor at Niagara College, teaches culinary innovation and food technology students about product innovation and heads a product development unit that assists entrepreneurs and established businesses in creating a physical prototype of their product. Products are so good now, she said, using the word “beguiling.”

Marketing your menu
A panel on marketing plant-based menu changes ended the day with a frank discussion of how the restaurant and food industries can build trust, build brand loyalty and make their plant-based items stand out. Panel host Peter Henderson, president and chief experience officer of Ideovation, the consulting company behind the summit, suggested belief-based marketing may be the key. “How do you find a way to work for and with people? How do you get people excited about plant-based food? How do we connect with people to find out what matters to them? One strategy is to let staff taste test new items and take ownership of new dishes.

Consultant Kiki Adami of Veganizer emphasized the importance of keeping the category description and menu item names as broad as possible – hence the term plant-based – in order to be inclusive.

Gino Cantalini, the co-founder and chief operations officer of Giants & Gentlemen Advertising, suggested we haven’t hit the tipping point for this trend, citing Tesla’s electric car as the example. “When Tesla comes out with a car at the right price, that will really be something. They’ve been edging people into it.”

Kathy Hunter, director of guest experience for the Envision Group-Compass Group Canada, said, “Why not offer something featuring ethnic flavours – if it fits with your brand.” Hunter gave the example of chana (chickpea) masala, which is growing in popularity.

The Global Summit Plant Powered Menus, which featured experts from Canada, the United States, Europe and Australia, was co-sponsored by Ideovation and Pulse Canada.