Consumers are demanding more alternatives to meat when eating out – whether it is vegan or vegetarian dishes. The surge towards a healthier lifestyle, combined with environmental concerns, is driving this trend.
Against this background, pubs face a major challenge. How can they alter their menus to offer a good range of options for those who want to experience meat-free meals?
New research from Meatless Farm Co, the plant-based meat-free supplier to the foodservice market, has revealed that more than 40% of Brits have eaten a plant-based, meat-free meal in a pub or restaurant in the past 12 months.
The survey of 2,000 UK adults via OnePoll also reveals that 41% of Brits were likely to consider choosing a plant-based or meat alternative dish when eating out at a pub or restaurant over the next year.
“There’s a global shift in the way people are eating and, in the UK, we know there’s a growing demand for meat-free, plant-based menu options,” says Danish entrepreneur Morten Toft Bech, founder of The Meatless Farm Co.
“Our research also shows that 33% of people would even have a preference for all meat options on the menu to be available as meat-free.”
This is largely being driven by females (50% of females surveyed) and the 35 to 44-year-olds age group (49%) who agree they would be likely to choose a plant-based or meat-free alternative in the next 12 months.
The consumer changes are clear, but what is driving this shift to meatless cuisine?
According to the exclusive survey, health is a key driver with 40% of those asked saying it’s the main reason for ordering a meat-free dish when eating out, while 29% say it is better for the planet and 26% better for animals.
Toft Bech says that there is a demand for ‘kind eating’ and appealing to a new generation who are much more focused on their wellbeing and health.
These consumers also want pubs to show that they are environmentally friendly too.
“This doesn’t mean just doing a bit of recycling. It’s an ethos that should run from your suppliers through to your menu items,” he argues.
“We know that 77% of consumers claim it’s important to them that a pub or restaurant is environmentally friendly and 74% think that operators could be doing more to fulfil this.”
More likely to visit a pub
The research also reveals that 20% of people say they would be more likely to visit a pub if it promoted its plant-based dishes and 72% of Brits agree that they should be labelled on the menu.
Interestingly, consumers have differing views on what they expect pubs to charge for vegan and vegetarian meals. Just under a third of consumers (32%) say they expect vegan meals to be more expensive, while a third (33.4%) expect them to be the same price.
Meanwhile, consumers have differing views on the price point of vegetarian food, with 37% believing it would be cheaper than meat dishes, while 42% believed that meat dishes are more expensive.
Whatever the price of the dishes, the survey also reveals pubs have failed to win consumers over with their vegetarian and vegan dishes. Only 15% of consumers say pubs offer the best plant-based options, well behind restaurants, which came in at 50%.
When it comes to the plant-based dishes consumers would choose to eat when dining out, almost half (47%) of those asked by Meatless Farm Co said they would order pasta, 33% pizza and 31% vegetarian burger.
The challenge for chefs is how to make these plant-based dishes interesting and tasty for the consumer.
Toft Bech advises operators not to be afraid and to innovate and develop these dishes. Nevertheless, he says this does not mean completely reinventing the menu.
“We know that 39% of consumers would be likely to go to a pub if they knew it was introducing new meat-free or plant-based menu options.
“But this could be anything from creating a new meatless dish to simply offering new meat-free versions of your best-selling meat dishes,” he says.
Creating moments and occasions for diners to enjoy meat-free meals, such as Meatless Monday, is also a crucial tool.
And Toft Bech argues that promoting health provides a “huge untapped potential” for maximising sales, as 42% of consumers say they would be likely to choose a healthy option while eating out at a pub.
He adds: “Combine this with the fact that 47% of consumers believe that a meat-free dish is healthier than a meat dish and 24% of consumers have reduced the amount of times they’ve eaten out due to the lack of healthier options available – that’s a big opportunity for operators.”
He also suggests that pubs should highlight the plant-based dishes on the menu, which can appeal to meat reducers and not just vegetarians and vegans.
“Pubs that can lead the way and build their reputations as having great meat-free options will drive covers on evenings that can traditionally be quiet. The vegetarian and meat reducing community is very active in seeking out good places to eat,” he says.
Meat-free options in pubs
Another key element to selling meat-free options is to ensure that these dishes are recognisable on the menu and that website and social media pages are up to date with the relevant menu information because this can be vital for customers who are researching options prior to a visit.
He also advises pubs to ensure staff are knowledgeable on the subject and can be confident in offering alternatives to main menu dishes.
Fuller’s director of food Paul Dickinson also reports increasing interest in vegetarian and vegan food across its estate of pubs, with about 14,000 searches for such foods on the pubco’s website every month.
Its pub menus are designed on an individual basis, with a minimum number of vegan and vegetarian dishes set for each site.
In May 2018, the pub company turned its venue The Fence into a Veggie Kitchen, celebrating both vegetarian and vegan food. This month, it has launched its new Veganuary menu, which offers a range of creative dishes including seitan satay with peanut sauce, barbecue pulled jackfruit tacos with mango salsa, and refried beans with avocado and tortilla chips.
While the top-selling vegetarian dish across its estate is vegetable chilli, Dickinson argues that customers still want something different on menus.
“If you have got really good products during the year, you can inspire chefs to cook it,” he says.
There is also the wider business case to consider. “What we are learning is that someone can walk into a restaurant with their friends and if there are no vegan dishes and the staff are not interested then you have lost eight people,” he says.
Ben Murray – who runs four pubs in Brighton, including the Wick Inn, the Cow, the Preston Park Tavern and vegetarian pub the Prince George – says it is important to meet the expectations of the customer.
He says that there has been consistent demand for vegetarian food in all the pubs, especially the Prince George, with vegan food becoming increasingly more popular during the past 18 to 24 months.
He advises licensees to offer a varied and frequently changing menu; to listen to customer feedback; to allow chefs to be creative and adventurous; and to use fresh produce by working with the seasons.
“As with all aspects of hospitality, it is about having an offering that meets the demands and expectations of the consumer and then delivering that on a consistent basis,” Murray advises.
There is no doubt that there is increased interest in meat-free dishes among consumers. With 41% of them likely to choose a plant-based meal in the next six months, there is a largely untapped opportunity for pubs.
The trend is there and it is up to pubs to embrace it by getting creative in the kitchen.