Recovering visits from vegetarian customers

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By Emma Hyatt

In a mature Canadian foodservice market, I’ve seen many operators successfully carve out traffic and/or cheque growth with a regular program of menu innovation. Some of the best success has been around launching new types of burgers, chicken sandwiches and breakfast items. However, the supper daypart and other types of mains continue to struggle. Where entrées are concerned, the topic of vegetarian mains very rarely comes up. I would like to take a look at this overlooked opportunity.

First, let me define my scope of “vegetarian” mains. To reach a broad group, I analyzed CREST® data for lacto-ovo vegetarian dishes: dishes with no animal or seafood flesh but may include eggs or dairy products. Canadians ordered about 315 million servings of vegetarian sandwiches, burgers or entrées in the year ending July 2015, which accounts for seven per cent of all mains (excluding breakfast). Together, vegetarian entrées are the sixth most popular food category in Canadian foodservice; they’re more popular than non-Asian seafood, beef or pork dishes and each Asian food category. Restaurants and suppliers should be talking more about this customer.

Canadians are showing changing behaviours in the types of vegetarian entrées they choose, and restaurants have opportunity to adjust to this momentum. Since 2011, the vegetarian share of entrées has fallen from eight per cent to seven per cent – a decline of 55 million servings a year. Much of the meals vegetarians have to rely on revolve around finding an item on the menu that typically includes meat and hoping there is a meatless option, i.e. salads, pasta or pizza with no meat. These types of items are what drive the declines for vegetarian entrées. Sandwiches and entrées designed specifically for the taste and nutritional interests of vegetarians gain share and drive growth in a challenged market.

While you’ll never hear me say a disparaging word about a four-cheese pizza, pecan and goat cheese salad, or fettuccini alfredo, accommodating vegetarians by just removing the meat can leave them with an unsatisfying experience. Much of a recipe’s flavour and nutrition is built around the protein and merely removing it can make a customer feel like a nuisance and leave them feeling like something is missing; They may be missing protein, flavour, texture, chef inspiration, and a focal point of the dish. If removing that protein doesn’t come with a price cut, they may also have trouble perceiving value.

Finding an entrée or sandwich designed to appeal to (not just accommodate) the interests of vegetarians is getting easier. McDonald’s has had a couple variations of vegetarian wraps that relied not only on cheese as an ingredient but on beans and hummus as well. The strong growth of the emerging Fast Casual segment – chains like Fresh, Freshii, and Chipotle – give more than a nod to the vegetarian customer with tofu, edamame, falafel, other legumes, nuts, seeds, and quinoa on the menu. The Fast Casual platform of customization makes it easier to offer these nutritious and satisfying options that create a balanced and exciting vegetarian dish or add more flavour and nutrition to other meat dishes.

Applying menu innovation to recover the size of the vegetarian market is worth $440 million dollars a year. Successfully going after a portion of that pie is best done by tailoring specific entrées to meet the taste and nutritional profiles of vegetarians. Cheese pizzas are quite popular and have performed better over the years. Entrées and sandwiches/burgers gain share more recently. When a vegetarian finds an entrée designed just for them, they will feel more valued, satisfied, and won’t be asking for a discount because someone had to pick out the meat.

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