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The Vegetarians Are Coming... Are You Ready?

A menu lacking vegetarian options alienates up to 33%, or nearly 12 million Canadians, according to a poll commissioned by the Vancouver Humane Society. That’s right. One-third of our population is either vegetarian or eating less meat.

Mentions of "vegetarian" on Canadian menus grew 7.2% over the past two years and 24.5% over the past year. Mentions of "vegan" are up 29.6% and 16% over the same time period.
©2016 Technomic Inc.

Operators can ill afford to close the door on this growing consumer group. But designing your existing menu took time and creativity. Don’t worry; you don’t need to blow up all your hard work to make room for vegetarian diners.

Who are they and what do they want?

Collectively, vegetarians choose, whether for health, preference, ethical, religious or environmental reasons, to exclude some or all animal products from their diets. You need to ask what they eat to know how to serve them:

  • Vegetarian – exclusion of meat and other animal products from the diet
  • Lactovegetarian – vegetarian who eats dairy products
  • Ovovegetarian – vegetarian who eats eggs
  • Pescevegetarian or pescatarian – vegetarian who eats fish and seafood
  • Pollovegetarian – vegetarian who eats chicken
  • Vegan – one who excludes meat and other animal products from the diet and does not use any animal products
  • Flexitarian – primarily a vegetarian who sometimes eats animal products

Put out the welcome signs

“Take all requests with the utmost respect,” says Kyla Tuori, Unilever Food Solutions’ corporate chef for Canada. “There are a variety of reasons, all very personal and subjective, that someone may choose to follow a specific diet.” The “why” should not matter to you as an operator in the customer service business.

Tuori reminds us of the importance of spreading the word. “Many customers, with special diets, tend to remain loyal to restaurants they know have food for them and tend to avoid others. Unless the operator informs potential new customers, they may not even consider dining there.”

TOP TIP. Advertise at the table or counter, online and on social media to communicate to current and potential customers. Use table tent cards, for now, if changing your menu isn’t in the budget.

Power up your menu

“Vegetarian menu offerings should not be an ‘afterthought’,” advises Tuori. “However, (operators) can use a variety of the ingredients already on hand.” You don’t need to clear out your kitchen.

TOP TIP. Evaluate your current menu with the palate of a vegetarian. Read label ingredients diligently – gelatin and Worcestershire sauce, for example, are no-goes for vegetarians.

How many offerings? Tuori suggests, “At least a couple in each segment of the menu. Variety is key and will drive loyal customers.”

Food strategies

However you rework the menu, ensure your offerings suit your capabilities and represent your brand.

“The simplest approach is substitution. If you are a protein-centred establishment, take advantage of all the vegetarian options available to us,” says Juriaan Snellen, executive corporate chef for McCormick Canada. There are delicious, high-quality pre-made options that go from freezer to table – think veggie burgers and hot dogs, seitan sausages and meatless chicken breasts.

Snellen, like a third of Canadians, is consuming less meat and enjoys the creative challenge in vegetarian cooking. “The biggest difference between meat and vegetables is the lack of umami flavours. Using spices and seasonings can boost the umami on your vegetarian menu.”  A Mediterranean Vegetable Shakshuka dazzles the palate with a blend of North African spices.

“Clubhouse has a roasted garlic and red pepper seasoning, and LaGrille has a vegetable seasoning perfect for basting vegetables for the grill, pan or oven,” Snellen suggests.

Don’t make it more complicated than necessary. Do you need a vegetarian version of a Caesar salad? “No, it makes more sense to offer a completely different salad, well prepared and well seasoned, suitable for a plant-based diet,” Chef Juriaan offers.

Unilever’s Kyla Tuori adds, “Create these dishes with creativity and care. Make these veggie dishes so ‘craveable’ they tempt even the most steadfast carnivore.”

After all, who could resist a Red Curry Thai Fried Cauliflower?

The vegetarians are here to stay. Embrace this growing segment. Open your menu and invite them in.

According to technomic’s menumonitor, “gluten-free” is the leading health claim on Canadian menus, appearing 1,956 times. Operators are expanding the gluten-free options they offer on menus to appeal to health-focused diners in addition to diners with dietary restrictions. Restaurants are serving up gluten-free varieties of pizza crust, bread for sandwiches, breading and desserts.

The second leading health claim on Canadian menus is “vegetarian.”

A lot of this popularity can be attributed to an increased interest in plant-based menus.

Vegetables are taking centre stage on many menus as operators attempt to court not only vegans or vegetarians, but flexitarian diners as well.

Another health claim appearing on menus is “organic.”

This term fits within a growing call for clean and natural foods produced without fertilizers, antibiotics, pesticides and other additives. Not only are organic foods appealing for health reasons, but organic sourcing also promotes eco-friendly practices.

veg 2Add to your existing menu focusing on non-meat protein sources:

  • Dairy
  • Eggs
  • Pulses (beans and lentils)
  • Tofu – soybean curd, available in various textures and flavours
  • Tempeh – fermented pressed soybean that can also be made from other legumes, cereals or coconut
  • TVP (Textured Vegetable Protein) – extracted plant-based proteins, available as granules, powder, cubes or slices
  • Seitan – cooked wheat protein (gluten)
  • Nuts
  • Seeds
  • Grains