Here’s How Working Plant Based Meat Into Your Menu Makeover Is Good For Business
Of the hundreds of restaurant menus we’ve design-engineered over the past year or so, about half of them are now offering a plant-based meat alternative to attract guests. The other half of my clients are asking for my opinion about whether to offer the items or not. The answer to that question is not nearly as simple as a yes or no answer. For the most part, products like Beyond Meat, and Impossible Foods, along with Morning Star and more recently private label products do a pretty good job of imitating other proteins like beef and chicken. But at the moment, they are still an alternative to meat, not a replacement for them.
A recent conversation I had that was interesting was with a sales representative working for Impossible Foods. After offering me a sample meatball and a slider to try, she asked if I knew of any restaurant operators using their products. I said that I represent dozens of restaurant operators who offer their products, or at least one of their competitors. She then asked how the products were selling. I was honest with her, and said that the products were always a complete puzzle. Meaning that, while the products brought in a higher than average profit, they simply didn’t sell all that well.
Is The Impossible Burger Offered Individually, or As A Substitute?
She then asked if the it was being offered individually, or as a choice for an additional cost. When I told her some of the operators were doing it one way, and others were doing it the other way, she started to offer ideas on how to sell more of her product.
All of her ideas were of little use to me or my clients. They showed a limited understanding of the restaurant business. And of the substitute position meat alternatives possess.
As an example, she told me to have restaurant operators offer the Impossible Burger without any toppings. Just as a simple burger for the same price as a regular burger. One problem with that idea is that the Impossible Burger is more expensive than beef. Most consumers are happy to have a nice, juicy burger. Another problem with that idea is the reason I recommend restaurant operators to offer plant-based protein. It’s not for a better burger, or to compete with the burger they are famous for. It’s an anti-veto item to get the one person in a group to come into the restaurant who would otherwise ‘veto’ that location. It’s the vegan or vegetarian, or environmentalist in the crowd. These people simply will not eat beef, or pork, and more recently chicken.
Advantages To The Environment (But Does Anybody Care?)
Pound for pound, ounce for ounce, there’s no doubt that plant-based meat is better for the environment. According to a report from the Good Food Institute, in comparison to conventional beef, an Impossible Burger reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 89 percent. That being said, at the moment, an Impossible Burger, as with any meat substitute (including chicken), is still a substitute. It’s not what consumers think of as real meat.
But in American restaurants, meat-based diets are the norm. That is unlikely to change because of the environment. Meat avoiders like vegans and vegetarians represent a small minority. For instance, in the United States, vegetarians account for significantly less than 5% of the population. Everybody else, that’s 95% of your customers, are just not that interested in switching to a plant-based alternative. This may change over time, but at the moment, and for your next menu, adding a plant-based burger, or meatballs, or sliced deli meat is just fine. But keep in mind, it will not sell all that well, and it will not replace other meat products.
What Plant-Based Meats Need Most
At the moment, the problem with all meat alternatives is, they are an alternative, rather than a serious competitor. None of the companies offering plant-based meat offer anything that will make anyone say: “I’d come back for that.” So, even though the products taste pretty good, they are not quite as good as what consumers typically purchase.
On most of the menus that include a plant-based alternative, the description will nearly always say something like: ‘Tastes just like a real beef burger’. This makes the product sound imitation, and not real. A description that is problematic when a consumer is looking for a nice, juicy burger. They are not going to ‘risk’ their choice on something being sold as ‘just like the real thing’. What if it’s not? What if I take a bite and don’t like it?
To overcome this issue, our recommendation is to find a special way to offer the product. Instead of ‘just like real beef, or chicken’, say, ‘we guarantee you’ll like it, or we’ll buy back what you don’t eat’. Better yet, offer the Beyond or Impossible Burger with its own recipe to make the burger interesting, special and different. Something like: Beyond Delicious Pepper Jam Burger. ‘Beyond Burger patty cooked to perfection and topped with pepper jam, crisp lettuce, vine-ripe tomato, sliced red onion and bread and butter pickles on a toasted vegan bun.’ In other words, make it sound like you put some thought into the item, not as an alternative, but as a special offer for your guests.
Holly’s Independent Restaurant Impossible Burger
Listening to Mike Buda, owner of Holly’s restaurant in Michigan City, Indiana, he claims he is selling fewer than 10 Impossible Burgers per week at 14.99 each. His plate cost is 3.60, leaving a plate contribution of 11.39. The problem is the description of the burger. At the moment, he is saying: ‘Impossible Burger, tastes just like our all-beef patty, so it’s not just for our vegan friends. Topped with raw onion, vine-ripe tomato and leaf lettuce 14.99.’ The problem is, it’s being sold as a ‘just like our beef patty’ style burger, rather than offering something specific to the consumer. As we update his menu over the summer, our recommendation will be to upgrade the offering to make it more interesting to a wider range of consumers.
The only reason Mike offers this option is because there are a few people in his community who order this burger when they come in. To drop the item would result in losing three additional customers because there ‘is nothing for that one vegetarian’ in the crowd.
Mainely Burgers Substitute Approach
Alternatively, Mainely Burgers in Massachusetts does something different with their menu with nearly the same, low results. The description they use is the following: ‘What is a Mainely Burger made from? 100% grass-fed beef from Walden Local Meats – sourced from warmers wicked close to us. All burgers are 5-ounces, cooked medium well unless otherwise requested. Substitute Chicken +50¢ or Maine made Veggie Burger on any sandwich!’ The results of their approach is just a handful of veggie burgers sold per week. But again, as an anti-veto item, it is a must-have option on the menu.
The Future Of Plant Based Protein
In Super Market News, in 2021, plant-based meat dollar share were 2.7% of retail packaged meat sales. That comes to 1.4% of the total meat category (including random weight meat). Each of these plant-based meat share numbers increased 19% over the last two years. While foodservice numbers are harder to find, our guess is that they are somewhat less. HotOperator experience tells us that the plant based meat substitutes account for a negligible portion of overall sales on any menu.
Gary Stibel, founder and CEO of The New England Consulting Group is pessimistic about the overall growth of meat substitutes. He believes the days of rocket-ship growth in plant-based products may already be over. We don’t agree with his analysis, as there are consumers who are adamant about eating only plant based foods. None of those consumers will be coming back to animal protein any time soon. Also, Beyond Meat is currently in collaboration with McDonald’s, which is being tested in a few restaurants in the United States. This partnership bodes well for that company’s future. While the size and scope of the rollout has not been announced, it is interesting to note that 13% of Burger King’s Whopper sales are plant-based Impossible Whoppers. These numbers are enough to make that burger a good seller. We can expect the same from McDonald’s, to be sure.
Need More Facts?
According to Restaurant Business, sales of plant-based foods rose 6.2% year over year. This helped reach a new high of $7.4 billion in 2021. This is according to new data released by the Good Food Institute (GFI), Plant Based Foods Association (PBFA) and wellness-focused company SPINS. On top of that, plant-based meat sales continue to grow strong, increasing 74% in the past three years. That’s outpacing the growth of conventional meat by almost three times. Keep in mind, however, this is starting from next to nothing in sales. And burgers, the top-selling restaurant offering, is a well-established category which is unlikely to grow at all.
Should Your Menu Makeover Include A Plant Based Alternative?
One answer is yes, it should. As an alternative to meat products, it is essential to keep your guests happy and coming in. They won’t necessarily order the item, but they are much less likely to visit a restaurant that doesn’t offer that choice on the menu. As Larry Light once responded to me when he was the Global Chief Marketing Officer for McDonald’s, and I mentioned that his salads didn’t sell well: “Yeah, Mark, they may not, but millions of women with children would never come into a McDonald’s restaurant if we didn’t offer them a salad option. She may not ever buy a salad, but it’s definitely why she visits our stores.”
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