Plant-based here to stay, say experts at London Produce Show Foodservice Forum

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Simon Stenning, Executive Director of MCA Insight, says regarding labelling on menus, 'we’re seeing an increase in the number of dishes labelled as vegetarian.'

Ivan Gonzalez

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Rob Kirby (left), Chef Director for Lexington Catering, talks to the audience at the Foodservice Forum.

Plant-based eating in all its guises has developed into a firm fixture that is here to stay on eating-out menus across the UK, driven by consumer conscience for their own health as well as global sustainability. That was the stand-out message from the late morning sessions of The Foodservice Forum 2018, held 7 June as part of The London Produce Show and Conference.

During the second-annual edition of The Foodservice Forum, speakers and panelists representing prominent companies from across the UK eating-out industry highlighted the increasing opportunities to sell more fresh fruits and vegetables as they discussed the growth in the flexitarian, vegetarian and vegan movements as well as the response from UK-based foodservice operators. 

Referring to the MCA Menu & Food Trends Report 2018, Simon Stenning, Executive Director for MCA Insight, pointed out the important and continued growth of vegetarian and vegan meal offerings across the spectrum of the UK food-to-go market; from chain and fast-food restaurants to managed pubs. 

“Regarding the consumption of food products, there has been a slight growth in chicken as a main protein group eaten out of the home and a growth in vegetarian of 6 per cent,” Stenning explained, as he opened the one-day programme with a deep-dive analysis of the UK foodservice industry. 

“When we look at the labelling on menus (how dishes/recipes are labelled), we’re seeing an increase in the number of dishes labelled as vegetarian. And there are more than double the number of dishes labelled as vegan.” 

The growth increments for central London caterer Vacherin are “two-to-three-fold” of those highlighted by Stenning, claimed Dan Kelly, the company’s Director of Food. “Certainly, vegetarianism and veganism is the hot topic at the moment […] we’re seeing huge amounts of demand,” he noted, adding that operators must react.

On chairing a panel of chefs gathered to examine the topic further, marketing director for contract caterer bartlett mitchell and longtime vegetarian Lin Dickens described the flexitarian movement as really having been “borne.”

In particular, Dickens quoted a 2017 Mintel’s Meat-Free Foods UK Market Report, which found that more than a quarter (28 per cent) of meat-eating Brits reduced or limited their meat consumption in the six months to March 2017. She also pointed out the spike in search interest for the word ‘vegan’, according to online search engine Google. 

As the panel discussion got underway, the millennial generation was singled out as the consumer group at the forefront of the flexitarian movement by both Rob Kirby, Chef Director for contract caterer Lexington Catering, and Andrea Waters, Creative Director & Executive Chef of Redemption Bar, a plant-based and alcohol-free dining concept in London.

“We’re seeing in the business that from Monday to Thursday, they [customers] are super healthy – really clean – then it gets a bit ‘dirty’ by Thursday [onwards],” regaled Kirby.

Waters agreed, adding that most vegans fall into the younger audience bracket of 15- to 35-year-olds. “From Monday to Thursday, they want to fill up with nutrition; they want to get their health fix and lessen the impact of what they want to eat at the weekend,” she noted. 

As for the biggest driver of vegetarian and vegan diets, the panel was divided in its opinion as to whether health or sustainability was the single-most reason, with many choosing both as fundamental to the growing appetite. 

When asked whether veganism is here to stay, Waters replied wholeheartedly. “Absolutely,” she asserted. “Youngsters are a lot more aware than we were of global issues, their health and sustainability. They’re all talking about it, and that’s going to continue. These are our customers of the future, and companies need to sit up and take notice.” 

Kitchen response

So, with the trend for plant-based meals firmly established, Dickens questioned the panel of chefs on how this has impacted their kitchens. Across the board, the chefs described a shift towards offering more plant-based food offerings on their menus, together with broadened training and outside support. 

Lloyd Mann, Global Culinary Director for Sodexo – one of the world's largest contract caterers with operations in more than 80 countries across the globe – detailed his company’s sustainable food initiative with WWF, Green & Lean, which has placed plant-based food at the core of Sodexo’s offer globally.

“We started piloting over 80 recipes and we’ve got to the point where we have created a strategic global food offer,” Mann said. “The early feedback is that it’s been a massive success. We are pushing WWF to support us in other countries where there’s big demand.”

Describing as “huge” the volume of vegetarian and vegan options now offered by the hospitality industry at large, Kirby from Lexington Catering used as an example the launch of its Grains & Greens vegetarian and vegan range, which he said has performed “really well” across Lexington sites.

“We’re trying to get to 95 per cent vegan, up from about 80 per cent at the moment,” Kirby said. “We don’t tend to use meat substitutes though, we prefer plant-based foods – we all prefer fresh. “We’re doing a tasting menu for vegetarian foods too […] people are getting whipped up about it.”

Andy Craig, Head of Fresh Food, Field Team & Food Service at Sainsbury’s, detailed the steps being taken at the UK’s second-largest supermarket chain.

“Flexitarianism is a massive trend,” Craig confirmed, explaining that retail food counters also have to remain relevant to today’s consumers. “It’s exciting for us; it’s about providing a combination of products. Our NPD [New Product Development] team are working on products like a mixed sausage with meat and veg.”

Even the UK stadia hospitality industry – where meat pies have long been the staple dish – is witnessing a changing client base that is more conscious of its eating habits, according to Thomas Rhodes, Executive Chef at Twickenham Stadium in southwest London. 

“We used to cater for 8 per cent vegetarian meals and 1 per cent vegan meals; now it’s 30 per cent vegetarian and 5-6 per cent vegan,” Rhodes noted. “We’re constantly adapting our menus, and we’re beginning the process of developing sole vegetarian and vegan menus for each restaurant [at Twickenham]. Everyone wants something completely different now than just two vegetarian [dish] choices.” 

In terms of educating chefs to enable them to deliver a broader, plant-based offer, Rhodes explained how many of his produce suppliers have visited to talk with the stadium’s kitchen teams about how to get the best out of each product, and how to incorporate more flavour into dishes rather than the traditional method of using meat.

“Also, I encourage my team to visit new restaurants and to try new things they’ve never had before,” Rhodes added. “And, we’re introducing a development chef to help on that side; we’re growing our team to develop new dishes.”

Similarly, Simon Price, Chef Director for ISS Food & Hospitality, pointed out the importance of responding to the meat-free demand by starting from scratch. “It’s not just about a load of new recipes; it’s about going back to basics,” he suggested. “It’s inviting chefs to forums to really understand what is vegetarian or vegan currently […] it’s handing over to a tomato grower to understand the value of produce.”

Of course, the rise in demand for plant-based dishes ultimately elevates the opportunity for fresh fruits and vegetables to be celebrated as they garner a larger share of the plate, as pointed out in the previous session by James Greetham, Business Director for event caterer Levy Restaurants UK (part of the Compass group). 

“We’ve just opened a restaurant at Somerset House with [chef] Bryn Williams, which really puts fruit and vegetables at the heart of its dishes,” he said. “It’s been really successful. The protein [on the plate] comes in second or third place, but it’s really worked.”

Importantly, Greetham pointed out that diners who aren’t necessarily vegetarian or vegan do not appear to miss the absence of meat on offer. “They just thought it was great food. There’s a mindset that at an event [the catering] should be meat, then vegetc. and that is definitely not the case.”

LPS18uCelebrated vegetarian chef and UK Culinary Master Paul Gayler MBE (left) demonstrated live a couple of dishes that respond to the plant-based movement, sponsored by LifeWorks Restaurant Group.

First was a fennel tartin with roasted and pickled beetroot, Granny Smith apple ketchup and chive flowers; followed by a Moroccan B’stilla (or Pastilla) made from seitan (a ‘faux meat’ also known as wheat gluten) served with jewelled cous cous, aubergine houmous and roasted root vegetables.

Regarded as one of the pioneers of vegetarian haute cuisine, Gayler agreed with the speakers before him that plant-based eating is both here to stay and growing at a foodservice and also a retail level thanks to the rise of flexitarianism, vegetarianism and veganism.

“Produce has been my love and life for many years,” Gayler explained. “Produce makes a dish. […] You eat with your eyes, and produce brings a lot of colours. If you make the plate sing, you make people want to eat it.

“Vegetarian food should be healthy, fresh and enticing for the palate. If you make good vegetarian food, you don’t miss meat.” 

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