What do you feed someone who wants a meal without meat? Managers in both the commercial and non-commercial segments of the foodservice industry have pondered this dilemma. While requests for meatless menu options may stem from reasons as diverse as health concerns, environmental activism, animal rights or religious and philosophical tenets, the fundamental question faced by the foodservice manager is, "Are there sufficient economic benefits to expand meat-free items on the menu?"
The demand for meat-free foodservice varies depending on the ethnic, religious and social makeup of the consumer base in a particular region. According to a regular survey by the Gallup Poll organization, the percentage of vegetarian and vegan adults in the U.S. is small. The poll asks the following question: "In terms of your eating preferences, do you consider yourself to be a vegetarian, or not?" In July 2001, six percent of American adults considered themselves vegetarian. In July 2012, the results remained relatively unchanged: five percent of the population considered themselves vegetarian; 94 percent did not. In 2012, the sample population was also asked if they considered themselves a vegan; only two percent indicated they were vegan.
Although the percentage of vegetarians and vegans is low, a number of consumers who don't adhere to exclusively plant-based diets are trying to reduce their meat and saturated fat consumption while increasing their intakes of fruit, vegetables and monounsaturated fats. These consumers may seek more meat-free options from restaurants or foodservice operations, and parents may look to schools to offer their children meat-free choices.
Satisfying the Meat-free Appetite
To fulfill consumer demand for meatless meals, some companies — including fast-food operations — have started offering veggie burgers, simple legume and grain-based entrees, or meat analogs. Meat analogs are usually soy or wheat protein (gluten) products shaped and flavored in a variety of ways. Textured vegetable protein is an extruded soy protein that is widely used as an extender for ground beef to minimize shrinkage during cooking. It may be used as a flavor and texture additive to vegetarian chili. Bacon-flavored textured vegetable protein is a familiar product added to salads and baked potatoes. Spun soy protein is used to make a vegetarian version of a "chicken" breast or vegetarian deli "meat." Look around and you'll find a meat analog for almost every familiar cut of meat and chicken.
Many ethnic cuisines also are good bets for meat-free dining options. Asian, African, Italian, Middle Eastern and Mexican are examples of cuisines that have inherently meat-free dishes. For example, some traditional Eastern Africa dishes are meat-free from an economic necessity; many Asian stir-fries may be made meatless by substituting cubed tofu; while Lebanese falafel and hummus are generally vegetarian.
Making the Switch
When introducing meatless menu items start slowly and get the staff involved. Sometimes transforming a dish into a vegetarian entrée is as simple as replacing meat with beans, or using vegetable stock instead of chicken stock. Offer non-dairy milk alternatives like soymilk or almond beverage. If serving a dish like pasta, leave half the sauce meat-free so diners have a vegetarian option. Clearly label vegetarian menu options and promote these offerings.
People looking for meat-free items often express concerns about menu transparency. Foodservice organizations should train employees to understand vegan or vegetarian dietary restrictions so they can respond to customer inquiries and concerns about ingredients and preparation techniques. For example, a seemingly meat-free entrée may have hidden milk, eggs, meat-based flavorings or soup stock, animal fats, honey, and sugar. Foodservice organizations can make a positive impact and cultivate loyal customers in this niche market by clearly communicating ingredients in their dishes and acknowledging consumer motivations for a meat-free diet — whether they are religious beliefs, concerns about the environment, animal rights or health.