The common practice of scanning a menu for a list of farms and producers wasn’t always the norm. Once upon a time, diners simply ate what was put in front of them. Decades of unveiling how and what we eat has resulted in a more aware food public, and guests have evolved to hold chefs and purveyors accountable for what they serve. The Good Food Institute says we can produce food in a new and better way – and most diners agree.
The list of more than 70 staff members staff and partners working with The Good Food Institute is a dizzying scroll of highly qualified scientists, investors, and entrepreneurs in the U.S. and five other countries. They all share the premise that clean meat and plant-based alternatives to animal products can be delicious and safer for us to eat, not to mention better for the planet than conventional animal agriculture.
Alison Rabschnuk is the director of corporate engagement, working with forward-thinking food processing and foodservice companies, supermarkets, and restaurants. Her team’s efforts are helping increase the standards and amount of available plant-based products.
“What’s so exciting right now is that consumers really are looking for healthier options that are better for the earth, and they don’t have to give up flavor with these new innovative products,” said Rabschnuk, who champions products like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat. “It tastes like meat and looks like it, but it is made in a better way.”
A recent summit at the Culinary Institute of America welcomed food industry professionals to learn more about plant-forward cooking and included chefs from around the world.
“There is so much chefs can do, and we help them see that the shift is happening,” said Rabschnuk. “We have more brands coming to us to learn how they can meet diner demand for more humane, sustainable plant-based products.”
The movement isn’t a passing trend. Plant-based dishes saw a 19 percent increase in orders in 2017, according to a GrubHub study. The term “vegan” on American menus has jumped a staggering 490 percent since 2008, according to Datassential MenuTrends. At fine dining and fast casual restaurants across the country and abroad, savvy chefs include multiple vegetable dishes on their menus. At the recent National Restaurant Association show, dozens of plant-based companies showcased their products in highly trafficked booths with long lines for tastings and information.
The push for smarter proteins isn’t without obstacles. Well-known plant proteins are more expensive and less accessible for all diners. More demand, Rabschnuk says, will help further mainstream it and bring costs down.
“Until that happens a lot of these restaurants carrying these meat alternatives are passing the cost along to the consumer, but in studies we know diners who want these dishes are willing to pay the extra price,” said Rabschnuk, who encourages chefs to be creative in both marketing to guests and preparation. “I’ve been to restaurants and asked for a plant-based dish and received a plate of lettuce – diners want a variety of textures and filling dishes.”
The Good Food Institute provides a plethora of resources for food-based businesses to make changes and meet diner demand for better choices. The startup manual is a step-by-step guide to beginning a plant-based or clean meat company, from funding to developing products, staffing, and expanding distribution. The scorecard ranks the top 100 restaurant brands according to their commitment to plant-based menu entrées and promotion of plant-based eating. Reviewing their menus and how they’ve been successful can serve as inspiration for chefs who want to begin making changes.
Zak Weston is a foodservice analyst at the Good Food Institute. He advises chefs to focus on the most important aspect of plant-based and meat alternatives – emphasize flavor and keep it familiar, such as serving in preparation styles that diners will recognize.
“Keep a hint of novelty, such as offering a plant-based nugget dipped in sauce, and highlight local foods. Not every community grows animals, but everyone grows plants,” said Weston. “This is especially true in ethnic cuisines and regions and in Southern dishes from a marketing strategy standpoint.”
It all boils down to demonstrating to consumers that they will be satisfied, and Weston says while it’s okay to talk about the health benefits of this cuisine, it’s better to do it subtly.
“Scream flavor, whisper health, and integrate it with other things on the menu, using photos to show the dishes are delicious, filling. Train your staff to what it is, how to sell it, and how the chef prepares it,” said Weston. “Don’t be afraid to use regional descriptions to help position it for better sales.”
Weston points to a study Panera Bread did with the World Resources Institute that included their long-time veggie black bean soup. When they renamed it Cuban black bean soup, sales saw an astounding increase.
“The Good Food Institute has a list of recipe ideas and suggestions on how to build entrees around innovative ingredients. It also comes down to spending time in the kitchen, picking an ingredient to play with, and pairing with local ingredients,” said Weston.
Weston is also excited about culinary educators’ development of a plant-forward curriculum, with a range of styles from fast casual to fine dining, including both webinars and on-site training.
“Something that’s not on the market yet but is emerging is cell-based meat technology, both from a sustainability advantage and health advantages. A cell sample the size of a sesame seed can grow without the animal, so the animal is no longer needed for the process,” he said.
Cell-based meat is 100 percent real meat, down to the DNA, and will someday allow the production method to include customizable meat, such as bacon or organ meat with specific percentages of fat content.
“It shows enormous promise for foods that have longer shelf life and lower contamination factor, but it’s along road to make sure it is scaled and sold at a cost that makes sense,” said Weston, who also notes a regulatory path to market. “There already have been tastings and proof of concept products. This should start being on the radar of chefs and restaurants within five to 10 years.”
From a chef’s perspective, Westin says there is much to anticipate, like working directly with producers to create a certain blend of meat or marbling effect within a steak, plus the opportunity for blended products.
“Consumers don’t have to make a compromise and there are alternatives to animal product. Chefs shouldn’t see the shift to plant-based eating as an annoyance, but rather an opportunity to do something great and help consumers eat in a healthier way,” said Weston. “It is a shift in mindset, but it’s nowhere near the uphill battle it used to be in getting them to listen, because competitors are doing it and customers are asking for it.”
The dark history of animal-produced proteins is ever present in the minds of diners who care where ingredients are sourced and how they arrive at table. Over-produced factory farms, overcrowding, and abuse have made diners aware and helped fuel the demand for changes like those the Good Food Institute promotes and encourages.
“Don’t see it as an afterthought, but to engage and to increase the size of the check, because plant-based is also profit driver,” said Weston. “Chefs can go to our GFI.org website and read market research about the demand that is happening at the retail level and at restaurants.”
The Good Food conference is taking place September 4-6 in San Francisco, where speakers and attendees will be focused on accelerating the marketplace for plant-based and cell-based meat. These technologies are estimated to feed almost 10 billion people by 2050.