What’s next for vegetarian food in pubs?

By Nicholas Robinson

- Last updated on GMT

Demand for meat-free food is on the up and is going to continue to rise
Demand for meat-free food is on the up and is going to continue to rise

Related tags Pub Pub chefs Vegetarianism

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The move towards healthier diets as well as concerns about the environment has brought about a step change in people’s eating habits.

The vegetarian option on menus is a major challenge for pub chefs. Yet, it’s one that is becoming increasingly important as people look to eat more healthily, cut down on meat consumption and allay their fears about the effects of meat production on the environment.

There are no definitive figures for the number of vegetarians or vegans in the UK. However, Government estimates from 2012 say that about 2% of Brits are vegetarian — fewer than 1% are vegan — which is more than 1.2 million people.

But more recent statistics, published in September 2014, from consumer research company Mintel, estimates that 12% of UK adults follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, rising to 20% of those aged between 16 and 24.

Mintel reveals that almost half (48%) of Brits see meat-free products as environmentally friendly and 52% view them as healthy.

Flexitarianism is set to rise in the coming years, according to experts

While the numbers, whichever ones you believe, may seem relatively small compared with the meat-eating majority, this spikes to an additional 35% of the population, according to further research from Mintel, when incorporating the ‘semi-vegetarians’ or ‘flexitarians’.

With the UK population at around 65 million, that is a potential market of more than 20 million people that may want meat-free options. Mintel also predicts that this section of the population will rise by 10% in the UK this year.

So what is actually happening in the eating-out market? What are people eating and what should pub chefs be doing to cater for this market?

The trend towards more vegetarian dishes on menus is already starting to filter through. Vegetarian dishes now account for 31% of new menu items, which is up from 18% on the year before, M&C Allegra Foodservice’s New Menu Item Analysis report has revealed.

Peter Linden, senior analyst at M&C, says: “At the leading pub chains we looked at, 19% of mains were vegetarian which is a 3% increase is on the previous year.”

He argues that the trend towards healthier eating, which has led to the rise of ‘flexitarians’, means people often operate on a ‘credit and debit’ philosophy when eating out.

‘Indulging more at the weekend’

“They are eating some healthy vegetarian dishes every now and then so they can have the burger and pint later on in the week,” he argues. “It is having a falafel salad on a Monday and then indulging more at the end of the week.”

The M&C analysis looks at chain operations in particular and found that places such as Toby Carvery were adding meat-free items, like aubergine gratin to its menu. The chain also offers a wide range of vegetarian options, including butternut squash crumble, lentil cottage pie, as well as the meat-free carvery.

Pub restaurant chain Harvester recently added a mozzarella pasta bake to broaden its offer, which already includes halloumi and chips, a cellentani pasta and sharers, such as three-bean chilli. Linden says that vegetable-based curries are also becoming an increasingly popular option on pub menus.

“The variety and quality is be-coming more adventurous, with more exotic influences,” he adds. “There is okra in the curry at Toby Carvery, which is an adventurous ingredient.”

Linden admits that a lot of the innovation and creativity in vegetarian food is ongoing in the independent pub sector. He predicts more vegetarian cuisine on pub menus as consumer demand increases, but admits that vegan offers are still niche.

“Obviously you will always have your traditional pub food, such a burger and fish & chips that is not going anywhere,” he says. “But pubs are expanding their menus with more choice.”

Pubs need to be more adventerous with their vegetarian offering

Research company J Walter Thompson agrees that interest in meat alternatives, vegetarian and vegan food is going to rise, especially among the 18 to 25 age group. Its Innovation Group Food and Drink: Trends and Futures report claims that almost a third (30%) of consumers say they are limiting meat consumption through a flexitarian diet.

Based in New York, Innovation Group worldwide director Lucie Greene believes this is a trend growing in the US and UK.

“It is related to a couple of factors, health and the increasing understanding among consumers of the connection between what they consume and the food they eat and the environment,” she says.

But offering vegetables as a food option is not just about catering for a niche sector of the market; it is becoming a valid food offer in its own right.

“We have multi-coloured carrots and the rainbow carrots, heritage tomatoes and different types of vegetables being appreciated for their different properties and flavours,” Greene says.

The influence of chefs in Michelin-starred gourmet restaurants in Paris and London that are experimenting with vegetables and even creating their own new varieties will take time to filter down to the pub market. “It will manifest itself later in the pub market,” she says. “Also pub chefs will increasingly be looking at where they are sourcing their vegetables.”

Scientific influence on food

Interestingly, the scientific influence in food will likely have an impact in the long term. Greene says a lot of development is being brought to the market, especially in the US, including taking the chemical make-up of meat and reconstructing it using vegetables such as spinach and mushroom. “One even bleeds like meat and, in the US, consumers were unable to tell the difference between this and meat,” she says.

While the innovation in the UK may not be as advanced, vegetarian suppliers are targeting the pub industry as a viable market with a range of new products.

Vegetarian and vegan food supplier Vegetarian Express conducted its own research of 300 consumers in February 2015. More than half of consumers felt there were not enough vegetarian dishes on menus and a third wanted to see between five and 10 options offered.

Vegetarian Express managing director Will Matier says: “If pubs are to compete, they must offer more choice, not just in terms of the number of dishes, but also the quality of food.”

He adds: “When it comes to ingredients, 71% of people would like to see more protein incorporated into vegetarian dishes, of which 63% opted for beans — a highly nutritious meat substitute benefiting from being low in fat and cholesterol-free. This is followed by nuts (48%), tofu (37%) and quinoa (31%).”

One of the largest vegetarian brands in the UK market is Quorn which, well known in retail, is making inroads into the eating-out sector with 4,000 establishments now serving its products. Major pub chains including JD Wetherspoon, Whitbread, Spirit and Stonegate Pub Company all now include Quorn dishes on their menus.

Big pub chains are investing more in their vegetarian food offering

“It is easy to see that the meat-free offer has increased significantly within the pub sector,” says Tony Davison, commercial manager foodservice, Quorn Foods.

“And, it is no longer just the domain of the vegetarian, the number of consumers choosing meat-free dishes on a regular basis, driven by health and sustainability motivations, are steadily rising.”

He admits that, whatever the motivation, consumers want high-quality products with flavour and this is continuing to drive product innovation. Quorn, for example, has recently launched a new sausage pattie to help operators extend their traditional breakfast offer.

This desire for innovation prompted the UK launch of America’s best-selling alternative to turkey, Tofurky, last year. The 100% vegan range from Turtle Island Foods originally launched into a range of retailers, but has the eating-out market in its sights.

“We view the pub sector as a viable area for growth within the larger foodservice market in the UK,” says Seth Tibbott, chairman and founder of Tofurky.

‘More of their meals meatless’

“In the US, it is estimated that 17% of the population eat half or more of their meals meatless each week. We believe it is the same or higher in the UK.”

He believes that the decline in people eating meat and fish during the past decade and the rise in interest in vegetarian and vegan provides a major opportunity. He advises pub chefs to consider offering a vegan option as it opens up the food offering to vegans as well as those who are lactose intolerant.

“It makes good business sense for pubs to put meat alternatives on their menus because when a group of people go out to eat, it is often the vegan or vegetarian that casts the ‘veto vote’ and steers the group to a place that serves their needs,” he says.

Tofurky is also set to launch a new Pulled Chick’n product that will be launching into the retail and foodservice sectors in the UK in spring. It will be available in three flavours: Lightly Seasoned, BBQ Style and Tandoori.

More Than Meat, a new company, was recently a finalist in the Unilever Foundry Dragons Den competition. It has a range of vegan plant-based products including More Than Beef Burger, Jerk Burger, Lorne Sausage Patties and Sausage Rolls.

Company founder Barry Honeycombe admits the growth in the market is coming from meat–reducers rather than vegetarians. He raises the issue that many pubs only offer a couple of vegetarian options and fail to update the menu regularly.

His major concern is that the taste, texture and health properties of many vegetarian foods do not meet consumer taste expectations.

“People are very conscious when eating in a pub that the food can be high in fat. It’s not just vegetarians and vegans, but those people looking for a healthier option,” he claims.

Whatever the motivation to this step change in people’s eating habits, experts in the field predict it will continue.

With a potential market of around 20 million people wanting to eat meat-free, pubs need to look seriously at their food offer. Pub chefs need to ensure their menus are providing variety as well as good quality. The stats are clear that pub chefs have some serious choices to make.

Here are 10 things you need to know about serving vegetarian food in pubs.

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