How to make a more plant-based menu work for you and your customers

At our Better Hospitality Conference this year Henry Dimbleby made it clear that if we continue to eat so many animals, the consequences for the environment will be dire. Yet shifting diets is not so easy and pushing people to change often just raises hackles. What can hospitality do if their customers consistently choose to eat food that is less good for the planet? Toby Park, Head of Energy and Sustainability at The Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) explained how behavioural science could be used to bring about significant changes in eating habits. There is no need to be heavy-handed when a more effective approach is to ensure plant-based food is easy, eappealing, and perceived as normal.

Most people choose food on the basis of taste, price, and convenience with health and sustainability trailing behind all these. So the key is to take steps to ensure that healthy and sustainable food is flavourful; affordable; and then convenient, available and familiar.

Unfortunately, many people have a pre-conception that vegetables aren’t tasty. And it’s fair to say that unimaginative cooking leads to some very unappetising vegetable sides that have lodged in people’s memories since childhood. The memory of being faced with Brussels sprouts of boiled cabbage as a child and told to ‘eat your greens’ is shared by many. So restaurants have to work extra hard to overcome this pre-conception and make their vegetable dishes appetising. It’s worth the effort, though, and not just for the planet. If you get it right, your vegetable dishes can be some of your highest margin, best sellers.

In this post we’ll be sharing the insights shared by Toby Park, co-author of the report A Menu for Change, Jens Hannibal, Co-founder and chef at Pulse Kitchen, and Annica Wainwright co-founder of 2Forks in their panel discussion at the Better Hospitality Conference 2024. We’ll cover:

  1. How to make vegetables taste better and more interesting
  2. How to make them sound as good as they taste
  3. How to make them the obvious choice for customers
  4. How to cater for different mindsets: familiarity versus excitement
  5. How to make your plant-based dishes work well for your bottom-line
From left to right: Jens Hannibal, Annica Wainwright, Toby Parks speaking at the Better Hospitality Conference 2024

Making vegetables taste better and more interesting

Jens Hannibal, Co-founder and chef at Pulse Kitchen, shared his top tips as to how to spice-up plant-based dishes. He suggested:

  • Seasoning – the effect of really skilled seasoning is incredible. Salt makes or breaks a dish. For example, seasoning each element in a roasted vegetable and whole grain salad is key.
  • Umami – this is crucial for making vegetables the star of the show. Think soy sauce, miso, dried shitake mushroom powder, tomatoes to ramp up umami elements.
  • Caramelisation – Jens was an enthusiast of caramelisation, citing the difference between boiled (tasteless) and oven-roasted (toasty notes) cauliflower. As he explained, “in the oven the cauliflower develops new flavour molecules via the Maillard Reactions.”
  • Acidity – citrus or vinegar adds improtant flavour dimensions.
  • Creaminess – on its own this may not add flavour, but it’s a good vehicle for it. “Look at mayonnaise” he enthuses, “you can add basil, yoghurt, sour cream, tahini…”
  • Texture – this adds an intriguing element to food. It could be crunchy vegetables, toasted nuts and seeds, or other crunchy elements.
  • Visual balance and variation – remember that we eat with our eyes and what we see can even affect how we taste it, so it’s important to plate up the food to look appealing. Create height, use contrasting colours, source beautiful plates and bowls.

Below example is a chilli non carne where the umami comes from dark miso and mushroom powder, smokiness from chillies, with a roasted vegetable and quinoa salad, rainbow slaw and toasted pumpkin seeds for texture. Avocado mash adds the creaminess along with a sour cream sauce (sour cream whisked with water for viscosity) and finally a lime, green chilli, fresh chimichurri for heat and acidity.

How to make plant-based dishes sound as good as they taste

Use positive descriptors that emphasise what’s good about it not what’s missing

Positive descriptors which emphasise the pleasure of eating and the ethics of the provenance (to include locally-sourced, sustainable, concern for animal welfare etc) will help to change the framing of a particular type of food.

An online Randomised Controlled Trial (RCT) doubled the purchasing of plant-based options by describing them as ‘field-grown’ rather than ‘meat-free’, and this result was replicated in Sainsbury’s cafés. Park explained why ‘meat-free’ is such a turn-off. “It simply underlines what’s missing – it’s negative. Descriptors that encourage need to be positive.”

Furthermore, according to research carried out at the University of Southern California consumers (especially meat eaters) are more likely to eat food labelled ‘healthy’ and ‘sustainable’ (40%) than food labelled ‘vegan’ (20%).

Image from A Menu For Change report

Be specific and play on people’s familiarity with the flavours in popular dishes

It’s also important to be specific and play on people’s familiarity with popular dishes such as “salt and pepper squid”. Annica explains how this strategy effectively got her to choose a tofu dish she wouldn’t normally have chosen and turned out to really enjoy. The dish was described as ‘Spicy Asian Salt and Pepper Tofu’. These specific flavour words help customers imagine how the dish will taste like something they know and like. “Cut out the fluffy, empty adjectives”, Wainwright suggests.

How to make plant-based options the obvious choice for customers

Increasing availability

Toby revealed that doubling the amount of shelf space and the number of options offered, whether that be on a menu or in a canteen buffet, made a significant difference to the amount of healthy, sustainable food being consumed. In one Cambridge University study (Emma Garnett et al) carried out in a canteen doubling the number of vegetarian options led to an almost 70% increase in vegetarian meal sales.

Make plant-based dishes more noticeable on the menu

According to a study carried out by Toby’s Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), moving low-sugar drinks to the front of shelves in a hospital led to a 12% reduction in sales of high-sugar drinks.

Image from A Menu for Change report

Using the same principle, you can make plant-based dishes more noticeable by understanding where the customer’s eye will go to, and linger, on a menu. Panellist, Annica Wainwright, co-founder of 2Forks, a consultancy specialising in menu engineering, uses scientific positioning to increase sales. Some of her tactics include:

  • Graphic highlighting in the upside-down L shape of your menu – put the dishes you are trying to push in shaded, coloured, outlined boxes, in an upside-down L shape on your menu (along the top and down the right hand side). This is how people typically read menus, so their focus will go there first.
  • Use photographs – don’t be frightened to use photographs – people find these very reassuring. I’ve increased sales of particular dishes by as much as 233% by using these techniques.”
  • Use the halo effect from your favourite dishes – place the dish you are trying to push right above or below an established favourite. Wagamama, for example, used their famed Chicken Katsu Curry to introduce a number of new dishes onto their menu by positioning them nearby.

This example of a menu from Rosa’s Thai illustrates many of these concepts, as well as a few still to come perfectly.

Menu from Rosa’s Thai

For many more ideas regarding how to work a menu go to our post: How To Use Your Menu To Maximise Your Profits. Or book yourself into a menu engineering workshop with Annica Wainwright.

Make plant-based and smaller portions your defaults

We see another BIT example, this time on-line rather than physical, in order forms for pizzas – if an option to order a small pizza is clear and easy to select (it’s the default, already-selected option with no extra price), together with other adjustments, there was an average reduction of 177 kcals per order.

This is done very effectively on the menu at Rosa’s Thai, where the plant-based option is presented at the top of the list of options for each dish and appears as the most affordable too. The other meat and fish based options underneath are more expensive.

Catering for different mindsets: familiarity versus excitement

Desire for familiarity or excitement varies by demographic, context and even time of day

Toby emphasised the importance of knowing your audience and what they value in order to focus messages for different clients more effectively – focus groups are a good tool for this. Teenage boys, for example, might be seeking familiarity (they tend to be risk averse), and they want to feel full. A menu aimed at them should include lots of filling comfort food, described in ways which promise wish-fulfillment.

For workplace catering, Jens has noticed that people tend to be much more health conscious while at work, so messaging around healthy eating works well in this setting, where it might be a turn-off in a fine-dining restaurant.

Mindsets even vary by time of day. According to Annica, “The same person will want different things depending on the time of day. You need to make sure your lunch menu is full of healthy options, while the dinner menu should include a few treats.” This is likely because at lunch, especially if you have a set up that attracts remote workers, people are often more in work mode than in pleasure mode.

Making plant-based familiar

To overcome risk aversion Jens offers familiar dishes with very discreet adjustments, for example a ‘Bolognese’ with mushrooms and lentils instead of mince. Pulses, wholegrains, seed and nuts, which all contain a lot of fibre, are also great ways of satisfying appetites. “The fibre they contain helps customers avoid a post-carb-fest afternoon crash”, he advised. To replace fish and chips; burgers; and steaks, chefs can develop tasty pie fillings – pumpkin and lentils for example.

Making plant-based exciting yet easy to try

On the other hand restaurants, Annica explained, need to be clearly offering something that the customer cannot conjure up at home. On the Burnt Orange menu the food is centred around wood-fired ingredients. Dishes on offer include: charred purple sprouting broccoli with lemon-tahini dressing; chilli-glazed monkfish with mint labneh, nettle chatta; and smoked pork neck with rhubarb ketchup and onions. Yet it’s helpful if these unfamiliar dishes are also low commitment. Customers don’t want to put all their eggs in one basket of a main dish that they might not like. It’s much easier if plant-based dishes are smaller and designed to be combined as just one of many dishes. Annica suggests:

  • Offer sharing menus – customers at Burnt Orange are encouraged to try new ingredients and unsual pairings because what’s on offer is designed as a sharing menu.
  • Create tasting menus – Annica explained that tasting menus can be more profitable if the meat quotient is reduced –  some restaurants are cutting down on meat content significantly by treating it more like seasoning – but you can only get away with this if the menu has great balance. Again, drawing from her own experience, she commented that tasting menus can persuade people to try things they normally wouldn’t. “Out of 14 years working as a restaurant critic, one of the most delicious things I ever tasted was an espresso cup of pumpkin soup. I would never have ordered that!”.
  • Offer nibbles on the bar – most people will be willing to try new ingredients if they are easily accessible, if they are in small quantities… and, of course, if they are free. Bar snacks tick all these boxes, plus the bar staff can be briefed to report any feedback they may overhear.
  • Encourage front-of-house recommendations – Front-of-House staff can also help encourage more adventurous selection by nudging customers towards new and better choices. “Have you tried the apricot tandoori cauliflower?” they can suggest, alluringly, “people are loving it.”

And finally, what about profits? How can plant-based dishes become profit-drivers for your business?

Annica recalled the espresso cup of pumpkin soup – sublime, but the basic ingredients were not expensive. The panel all agreed that it should be possible to shift a menu to less-expensive plant-based ingredients without necessarily reducing the prices. A lot is to do with how the food is described and presented. So doing the right thing can also help a restaurant increase profits – a win-win all round.

Dishoom has made their Black Daal, a simple high margin, plant-based dish their speciality and their whole team promotes it like it’s the holy grail for dinner at Dishoom. “You must have the Black Daal! All our guests love it…”

Annica summarises “It’s perfectly priced at £6-7; it’s designed to be shared; it goes with everything; it fills you up; it tastes good – it can turn any meat eater into a vegetarian! What more can you ask?”

What would your ‘Black Daal’ be on your menu?

If you’re starting to put some of these tips into action and want to track your progress to more plant-based sales, Tried & Supplied can help you monitor your changing ratio of plant-animal based purchases. Feel free to drop us a line if you’d like to find out more.

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