Demand for plant-based protein beefs up

Both meat substitutes and legumes in falafel form flourish on menus


Bret Thorn, Nation's Restaurant News

Mar 08, 2018


Americans love to eat protein, and not just chicken, beef or pork. Plant-based protein consumption is rising, and chefs and producers are responding with more meat-free varieties and more options that mimic meat.


Nearly 40 percent of Americans are “actively trying to incorporate more plant-based foods into their diets,” according to a report by consumer and market research firm Nielsen, and 23 percent wanted to see more plant-based proteins. That’s significantly higher than the 6 percent who identified as vegetarian and the 3 percent who said they were vegan.


Never mind that most Americans eat twice as much protein as necessary, according to the Mayo Clinic. They often want something hearty and protein-rich at the heart of their meals.


“A lot of people want a sense of a center-of-the-plate,” said Steve Heeley, CEO of Veggie Grill, a 28-unit vegan chain based in Santa Monica, Calif.


Veggie Grill offers a wide variety of plant-based proteins, including several with a similar taste and texture as meat, such as a new Meatballs & Polenta Bowl. The “meatballs” are a combination of pea, wheat and soy proteins, and are custom-made for the chain.


The chain uses Gardein Chick’n as a chicken substitute, and it recently introduced a Wunderbrat made with producer Beyond Meat’s new meatless brats, made mostly of protein from peas, fava beans and rice.


“Brats are really popular in the Midwest, so we did a riff on the Midwest-style version of a brat,” Heeley said.


The sausage is grilled and served on a pretzel bun with grilled onions, craft mustard, pickled cabbage and beer “cheese” sauce made with Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and Follow Your Heart non-dairy “cheese,” which is made from coconut milk.


Veggie Grill uses Beyond Meat burgers, as does BurgerFi, a North Palm Beach, Fla.-based chain with just over 100 U.S. locations that is squarely geared toward carnivores.


“It’s going insane,” BurgerFi corporate chef Paul Griffin said. “I don’t think I’ve seen anything change the industry … as much as this plant-based protein.”


BurgerFi focuses on clean-label foods, and the Beyond Burger, which is free of gluten and soy, fits that ethos, Griffin said. But he expressed surprise at the burger’s appeal beyond coastal cities like Miami, Los Angeles and New York.


“I thought it was going to go flat when it went national, but I was wrong,” he said, noting that middle Americans from Texas to Ohio “love it.”


“We have a cult following for our quinoa VeggieFi burger, and [Beyond Burger] is rivaling it,” Griffin said.


Burger battle ...


Falafel finds an opening ...


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