How to make plant-based dishes stand out

By Amelie Maurice-Jones

- Last updated on GMT

Food psychology: What's behind the decisions customers make?
Food psychology: What's behind the decisions customers make?

Related tags Food

Experts advised on how hospitality could prompt consumers to make healthier decisions through menu design and language at the Better Hospitality Conference 2024.

The conference took place at Mercato Metropolitano, Mayfair, central London, on 18 March to 19 March.

The panel was comprised of Toby Park, head of energy & sustainability on Behavioural Insights Team, non-executive director of Pizza Pilgrims Annica Wainwright and Pulse Kitchen co-founder Jens Hannibal.

Park said his company’s research had found most people would generally choose to eat enjoyable & tasty food that is also affordable, convenient, available and familiar.

Health comes into the mix, but for the majority it’s a secondary factor. Sustainability is then ranked slightly lower.

Due to this, he said operators needed to emphasise taste and enjoyment over sustainability and health. 

If food is made sound overtly healthy, he said sales would actually drop, as it’s only catering to the small market of people who prioritise that.

Increasing the availability of plant-based dishes on the menu can also help. For instance, doubling the number of veggie options in a canteen from 25% to 50% led to an almost 70% uptick in vegetarian  ‘meat’ sales, research from Cambridge University revealed.

Provenance and accessibility are also important to consider, said Park. For instance, in hospital canteens, research showed that when lower sugar drinks options were positioned to the front of a cabinet rather than the back, it led to a reduction in sales of high-sugar drinks.

Language is also key. Describing a dish as ‘regular’ rather than ‘small’, as well as increasing the range of choice (e.g. small, regular, large and extra large options), marks an increase in people choosing the smaller options, meaning the average calorie intake is reduced.

Hannibal said plant-based dishes should not be an afterthought for operators, if they wanted to make them really tasty.

Enhancing taste

He advised them to pay attention to the level of seasoning in a dish. This could be achieved through playing around with a umami taste, which he said is essential for making plants taste delicious, and is found in food including mushrooms, parmesan, seaweed and tomatoes.

Another way to enhance flavour is caramelisation, he added. For instance, boiled cauliflower verses roasted or pan fried cauliflower creates two completely different taste experiences.

If you have a three-veg dish, for instance - cauliflower, red onion and rocket - roasting one of those elements will make a “massive difference”. 

According to Hannibal, acidity is also incredibly important as it adds dimensions of flavour. Creaminess is also vital, with food like mayonnaise acting as a vehicle for flavour. Basil in mayonnaise, for instance, is a different taste experience to basil by itself due to the mouthfeel.

This can also work with yogurt, sour cream and tahini.

Furthermore, texture is important and can be enhanced by roasted nuts, seeds and breadcrumbs. 

“We eat with our eyes,” Hannibal added, and so creating vibrant, multi-coloured dishes can make them seem more appealing. 

So how do you make plant-based dishes sound good on a menu?

Wainwright said: “So many chefs put loads of effort into making delicious dishes, but have uncreative descriptions on the menu.”

If a non-vegan is trying out veggie dishes, they want something that sounds tempting. “Make sure you use really hard-working, descriptive words to bring it to life on the menu,” she explained.

For instance, describing meat as “field grown” rather than “meat-free” brought a whole different vision to mind.

She advised operators to focus on flavours that they knew were popular and to do their research on their customer base. 

For instance, she was enticed at one venue by descriptions of ‘salt & pepper tofu’, despite not being the biggest fan of tofu, for its connotations of the more common dish ‘salt & pepper squid’, encouraging her to order it.

Language matters

“Cut out all the fluff, all the empty adjectives,” she said, listing words like delicious, mouth-watering and unctuous. “Play on dishes you know people like.”

Park added that operators needed to understand their audience and the barriers they faced to choosing more sustainable options.

Then, this needed to be reflected in the language used on the menu.

Wainwright suggested one way venues could encourage customers to be more experimental was through a small plates or tapas format.

Operators could also create ‘explorer menus’; set-price menus with a balance of great dishes to try. This could be a vegan explorer menu, or alternatively, a largely plant-based menu with a little chorizo crumb or fish to bring the dish to life for a meat-eater.

Wainwright offered further tips on enhancing your menu. She said you could highlight specific menu items through shaded boxes, coloured boxes, or outlining them in frames.

Pictures could also be a useful tool. While there is an association in the UK that photos make food look ‘cheap’, she said “people want to see what they’re eating”.

At Rosa’s Thai, she said photos had driven sales to plant-based dishes through portraying them as “delicious” and “exciting”. For instance, one dish’s sales increased by more than 200% after its photo was added to the menu.

She also said that when reading a menu, the customer tends to scan it from the top to the right-hand side first. This is how the bottom left of the menu had earnt the label ‘menu Siberia’. 

Through moving dishes from ‘menu Siberia’ to a prominent right-hand position, operators could increase their chances of being picked. 

Then, Wainwright talked about the ‘halo effect’. Whatever you place next to your best-selling dish is going to get more views, she explained. So you could pair up dishes you wanted to push your guests towards using this strategy.

Furthermore, venues could make the veggie options in dishes a bit more exciting. For instance, customers may be interested to opt for ‘pulled mushroom’ in a curry rather than meat, given the choice, as it sounds a bit different.

In this light, Pizza Pilgrims have worked to create a vegan version of nduja called ve-du-ya. Making up your own words in this way may help pique guests’ interest.

Wainwright said pubs could play around with nibbles, like scotch eggs, to this effect. 

She also said alternatives of ‘classics’ like fish & chips or burgers with less meat could work well, and pies were also great to experiment with.

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