Fresh produce, not meat, becoming highlight and staple on British restaurant menus

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Photos courtesy of Dishoom and Avobar

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Appetisers and main meals in UK restaurants are featuring more fruit and veg than ever. Produce Business UK explores what’s driving this trend and whether we’re now entering an age where meat is a luxury that fewer people order when eating out.

There was a time when non-meat options on UK restaurant menus were pretty much an afterthought, something chefs put minimal effort into creating. Basically, the chances of being served a glib Portobello mushroom were very high. Yet fast-forward to 2018, and non-meat options are some of the most innovative things you can order on a night out. 

In spring and summer 2018, vegan options on UK restaurant menus grew by an impressive 237 per cent year-on-year, according to MCA Menu Tracker, which monitors a consistent set of 31 of the country’s leading restaurant chains. This has been boosted by once specialist fresh produce items such as jackfruit helping chefs get more creative. 

The launch of veggie-only chains has also made non-meat options more attractive in the mainstream eye, with Pret-a-Manger now owning several permanent ‘Veggie Pret’ sites in London where cheese and ham toasties are strictly off the menu. Pret soon will open the first Veggie Pret outside of London, with one coming to Manchester. Pret’s CEO Clive Schlee said recently, “It seems the movement for eating less meat continues to grow. Our Veggie Prets have been a huge hit with customers, whether that’s vegetarians or meat-eaters. The next stop for Pret will be the U.S., where we’ll be launching a new veggie range in all our U.S. shops.”

Innovative small plates

In particular, there’s been a noticeable shift towards more veggie appetisers, starters and sharing plates, according to Ian Nottage, a previous winner of ‘Development Chef of the Year award’ and chef director at fruit and veg wholesale giant Reynolds. His assertion is backed up by the numbers. The same MCA Tracker shows there were just 100 veggie starters and 111 veggie sides on the restaurants it monitors in the spring and summer of 2016; in 2018 this grew, with there now 127 and 134 respectively.

It’s Nottage’s job to dream up new veggie dishes for some of the leading UK chains, and he notes: “In the higher end, there’s so many veggie small plates now. It’s something I expect to filter through to the more mainstream chains over the coming years.

“There’s been such a big drive towards this vegan, flexitarian vibe. Sure, it’s still a small part of the market, but it’s easily the most vocal part so a lot of the restaurant operators know they must get on board as they can’t get away with just offering a veggie risotto anymore; it must be more creative than that!”

He singles out the likes of Bill’s Restaurant, Redemption Bar and Mildreds for offering consistently original veggie small plates and appetisers on their menus.  

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One British restaurant leading the way in veggie sharing plates is Dishoom, a critically acclaimed Indian chain with seven sites across the UK. Its head of operations Brian Trollip says its deep fried okra small plate (left) is among the most popular on Dishoom’s menu: “Okra had this image of being slimy and gross, but we have freshened it up and made it crunchy. We try to think carefully about the design of all our veggie plates.”

 

Trollip insists it isn’t just vegetarians driving the demand for veggie dishes either, adding: “We’re fortunate, as Indian cuisine obviously lends itself to great fruit and veg-heavy food, but I would definitely say in the past a lot of restaurants were guilty of being lazy with veggie food and seeing it as an obstacle. Fortunately, there’s been a huge shift away from that.

“Meat is becoming much more of a treat. Across our seven sites, we’ve noticed people are trying to order non-meat dishes if they can.”

According to Trollip, this shift has been driven largely by “common sense. We live in a brilliant age with great information available at our fingertips so people are really focusing on their impact on the environment,” he explains. 

“When you read how much pollution cattle creates, how many acres are being stripped up for grazing land, how much water it takes and grain ... well, it means even 'non-veggies' are cutting back on the meat they eat and thinking of it more as a treat. Cows create more CO2 emissions than cars, so eating red meat just isn’t sustainable.

“There are so many factors driving people to veggie; it’s about looking closer at the global impact of meat production, animal welfare, their health. Cost is also a big thing,  too. If you order a veggie option, you’ll get to live longer, look after our planet better, not be awful to animals; these are huge factors.” 

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"If a veggie dish has flavour and nutrition and is a good product, my experience tells me it will see more demand than the meat product from our customers.” — Liana Kazaryan, Avobar

Better taste

Another factor is that veggie dishes now have so much flavour, due to a rise in versatile and more exotic ingredients. Liana Kazaryan, co-founder of the Avobar, a new restaurant in Covent Garden where avocados are the star of the menu, tells PBUK, “There’s so many diverse ingredients used in vegan and veggie dishes nowadays. 

“Vegetarianism, for years and years, had this association with boring food that wasn’t tasty or flavoursome, but that perception has completely shifted. If a veggie dish has flavour and nutrition and is a good product, my experience tells me it will see more demand than the meat product from our customers.”

There’s also a much wider selection of fresh produce for chefs to tap into, according to Reynolds’ Nottage: “There’s more beetroots, green strawberries, unusual brassicas, just such a wider selection of fruit and veg for chefs to cook with. We have jackfruit in today, but three years ago people would have said ‘what the hell is jackfruit?’ Byron now have it in their vegan burger!” 

Jackfruit, a versatile fruit that when cooked can emulate the texture of pulled pork, has been a big hit on the Dishoom menu. Trollip says five years ago, Dishoom sold almost entirely lamb or chicken biryanis, with the veggie option not very popular. But he says this has now shifted. “We now sell more jackfruit biryanis! Our chicken curry used to outsell our veggie curry by 3-1, but it’s now 50-50 on sales. Customers now know that there’s so much more variety and flavour in terms of the ingredients in veggie dishes.” 

Reynolds works with dozens of restaurant chains in terms of developing new fruit- and veg-based dishes, and Nottage says their demands have changed “dramatically” over recent years. 

“The brief on food development has gone from seasonal-based food and salads to stuff that’s exclusively alternative and vegan, whether that’s fake meat or using produce in a different way,” he says. “One of my guys went to Nairobi recently, and they are cutting a corn kernel down the middle and frying it and serving it like a spare rib. We’ve made beetroot burgers that look like real beef in our kitchen and even used soya milk to make vegan mayo. That’s the kind of innovation we’re seeing!”

Dishoom’s Trollip agrees, adding: “I was in the U.S. recently visiting the Impossible Fruit Company as they have developed a vegan burger that tastes better than a beef burger. It bleeds. It’s really good to see more and more dishes that are just as delicious as any non-veg option. The burger was amazing. We all went back and had it again. We couldn’t believe it was a vegan product and that it wasn’t meat!”

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The Vegan Big Bombay from Dishoom restaurant

Veg-only restaurants

Although Avobar does have meat on the menu, with a chicken burger that is smothered in smashed avocado, Kazaryan believes we’re getting one step closer to a future where more and more veggie-only restaurants exist on the high street. 

“People want more diverse dishes," she says. "With the rise of so many food bloggers and nutritionists on the internet, there’s this real urge to eat healthily, so seeing somewhere that doesn’t offer meat is more of an attraction than anything else.”

This is an idea Dishoom has toyed with. “It is something we’ve spoken about doing in the past, so maybe we will open a veggie-only Dishoom in the future and experiment with it like Pret have done," says Trollip. "There is certainly room for that to happen, but whether we do an entirely different concept or just make our menu more obviously vegetarian is what we need to work out. It’s not something imminent, but it’s definitely in my thinking.” 

Yet, Nottage says we shouldn’t get too carried away with the current vegan boom as it won’t necessarily work for every business: “It depends on who you pitch it to. Lots of the guys in the larger restaurant groups have a restricted skill level in kitchen; they’ve got to make it achievable across 200 restaurants. That’s a big challenge! 

“Another challenge is making someone feel full from plant fibre. It challenges us and our customers. It is widely accepted if there’s a group of six, the vegan decide where you go so you need to make sure you’re making stuff that’s making people feel properly fed.”

Is this a permanent shift?

Nottage acknowledges that food trends come and go, but he’s adamant that the current shift to more vegetarian small plates and dishes is a long-term trend.

“People want to try something different; it’s a permanent shift. The Instagram generation is leading this charge,” he says.

Huge reductions in meat-eating are essential to avoid dangerous climate change, according to a recent report from the University of Oxford. It warned that in Western countries, beef consumption needs to fall by 90 per cent and be replaced by five times more beans and pulses if we’re to cope with population rises and threats to climate change.


“Our clients used to look at vegan options as a pain in the arse, but now they can’t ignore it. It’s absolutely crucial for the future.” — Ian Nottage, Reynolds


According to The Guardian, the researchers found a global shift to a “flexitarian” diet was needed to prevent a drastic rise in global warming. This flexitarian diet means the average world citizen needs to eat 75 per cent less beef, 90 per cent less pork and half the number of eggs, while tripling consumption of beans and pulses and quadrupling nuts and seeds. 

Nottage says the public simply no longer will be able to ignore these warnings, making more fruit- and veg-heavy options on restaurant menus imperative. He adds: “Meat production just isn’t sustainable in its current form." 

“If you look in the newspapers, it’s all about eating less meat, and those things will only become more important as the years go on. A lot of the trends we see, such as veganism in street food, those vendors will become national chains. That’s the next step.”

Dishoom’s Trollip says the idea that this is a trend that will go away is simply “ridiculous.” He estimates that 40 per cent of restaurant menus are now plant-based and moving away from protein-heavy dishes. He claims: “People’s tastes have fundamentally changed.”

Ultimately, the mentality of restaurant owners isn’t what it was five years ago. In order to survive, they must focus on fruit and veg-heavy dishes or risk becoming irrelevant.  “Our clients used to look at vegan options as a pain in the arse, but now they can’t ignore it," says Nottage. "It’s absolutely crucial for the future.”

The Avobar is planning to launch more sites as it aims to tap into the nation’s love for avocados. Kazaryan is convinced Britain is becoming more and more like California, where vegan restaurant chains are just as prominent as Nando’s or Wagamamas on the high street.

She explains: “We were inspired by places where avocados are more established as part of people’s meals. We spent time in California; they are leading the trend in terms of offering great vegan restaurants there." 

“This isn’t just a fad that will go away. You have the foundations in the UK market now and something to build on. When there’s great flavours and nutrition, and a great product, there will always be demand. I can see the UK market becoming more and more like California’s.”

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