Protein Power: The latest on how to rev up your meat and poultry offerings

By Renee Lee Wege

There’s no shortage of meaty Canadian classics. Montreal smoked meat, gravy-slathered cheese curds, tourtiere, wild game, donairs — the list goes on. While plant-based dishes are gaining traction throughout all dayparts, meat still holds pride of place on most menus, and chefs and restaurants operators are getting increasingly creative to keep it there.

Meat Means Big Business

Just like most of the world, meat is big business in Canada. Last year Canada’s red meat industry alone made up over $20 billion in shipments, according to the Agriculture and Agri-Food department. Meat and poultry are also thriving, even though many meat companies (both in Canada and across the world) are dipping their toes into plant-based eating and acquiring innovators in the space. Toronto-based meat giant Maple Leaf Foods now has Lightlife, maker of plant-based hot dogs and “chick’n,” under its umbrella and is making moves to acquire more plant-based meat companies, while Tyson, the largest meat producer in the U.S., invested millions in plant meat company Beyond Meat.

Even with all the plant hoopla, though, animal protein still has a strong foothold in the foodservice industry. Datassential’s MenuTrends tool, which tracks menus in the U.S. and Canada, shows that beef and chicken are available at nearly all restaurants (each appearing at about 90 per cent). Both are also still growing, which is a rare feat for ubiquitous ingredients whose growth typically stays stagnant because of their already high menu presence.

Chicken Flying High

Chicken is currently the most popular meat protein in Canada, available on 92 per cent of menus across foodservice operators. Part of the humble chicken’s continued rise in popularity can be traced to chicken and waffles, the sweet and savoury dish that’s taking Canada by storm, growing over 600 per cent according to our menu data. French import Les 3 Brasseurs, which has more than a dozen locations in Canada, takes the breakfast dish to lunch or dinner by transforming it into a Chicken and Waffles sandwich with fried chicken and crispy bacon sandwiched between two sweet Belgian waffles (a great way to transform the knife-and-fork entrée into a portable handheld). Les 3 Brasseurs’ menu also adds meaty goodness to a variety of other dishes: Canadian favourite poutine comes both in a traditional format as well as with roasted chicken, pico de gallo and bacon in its chicken club poutine, while a new grilled cheese sandwich features braised beef and Quebec cheese and the smoked meat burger piles Montreal-smoked beef atop a 100 per cent beef burger.

Bacon, a perennial favourite, is loved throughout the world, but especially in Canada, where it’s the most-menued protein after chicken and beef. For an extra Canadian spin, there’s of course maple bacon, one of the fastest-growing protein varieties on menus (it’s already on over five per cent) that can be used to add a hint of savoury sweetness to dishes. Any operator can easily capitalize on the maple bacon trend — simply finish cooked bacon with a maple syrup glaze for a sweet and smoky combination that can be used throughout the entire day and across menus. Domino’s, for instance, uses maple bacon in its Bacon Garlic Fingers, sliced pieces of dough with garlic butter topped with a blend of cheeses and crumbled maple bacon, while two-location restaurant The Wooden Monkey uses maple bacon glaze on its pan-seared Nova Scotia salmon.

The Return of the Steakhouse

Just like fan-favourite bacon, there’s something to be said about classic venues, as well. Steakhouses are prime spots for meat and poultry, and there are opportunities for showcasing meat both traditionally (who can resist a beautifully-cooked steak?) and in more modern preparations. Toronto’s Jacobs & Co. Steakhouse goes the simple route, using high-quality meat that’s butchered and dry-aged in house, right in the middle of the restaurant where customers can see it through the glass climate-controlled area, and cooked with just salt, pepper and plenty of heat.

Meanwhile, other steakhouses are putting their own spins on meaty fare to reach and excite customers. Instead of offering colossal steak cuts, which may not appeal to customers looking for a lighter meal, operators might also include options for smaller cuts of meat that can be mixed and matched with various toppings and sauces to create a platter that’s shareable for the table. And even at steakhouses, steak can certainly star in more dressed-down items, like stir fries, tacos or handhelds bulked up with strips of sirloin to appeal to those looking for a more casual meal. Longstanding chain Lawry’s The Prime Rib Restaurant & Steakhouse, with locations in multiple U.S. states, turns to more casual fare with its Lawry’s Side Door concept in Chicago. Connected to the traditional restaurant, Side Door offers guests a casual, neighbourhood restaurant feel with dishes like prime rib chili and prime rib Philly cheese steaks.

Upping Their Game

Proteins like chicken, pork and beef are widely consumed throughout the world, but Canadians consume far more game meats, which aren’t nearly as ubiquitous in other countries. Venison is one of the top-growing proteins on Canadian menus, whether it’s found in a traditional blueberry sauce at Quebec City’s Bistro Sous Le Fort or in a decidedly modern preparation like the sous vide venison with cocoa nib merlot sauce at Ontario’s Peller Estates Winery Restaurant. For consumers who aren’t well-versed in game meats, operators can help ease apprehension by cutting the gaminess of venison with more familiar flavors. Vancouver’s Chambar offers the Le Burger Du Chasseur featuring a venison burger, aged gruyere, red wine and black pepper jam and mushroom ragout for a spin on a traditional burger, while at Toronto’s R&D, venison is combined with cheese curds and charred scallion-jalapeno sour cream in Venison Chili Spring Rolls.

Whether you go modern, traditional, or somewhere in between, the options for meat and poultry-driven menu items are endless. By leveraging new preparations of trendy ingredients and dishes like chicken and waffles, maple bacon, and venison, you too can capitalize on meaty menus.

Renee Lee Wege is a senior publications specialist at Datassential, a supplier of trends, analysis, and concept testing for the food industry. For more information about North American food trends, contact Dave Jenkins at 847-903-5744 or dave@datassential.com.

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