Rosanna Spence delves into the world of meatless mavericks to find out what makes consumers tick when it comes to making plant-based choices
Thanks to a dash of ingredient ingenuity and a heavy dose of laboratory-level trial and error, nothing is quite as it seems on our plates these days. Having dabbled with a vegetarian diet on and off for more than a decade, I can wholeheartedly confirm the quality of plant protein products has rocketed. This even resulted in a bashful exchange for me at a tiny rural pub, when I had to ask the chef if I’d been given a meat burger by accident, one bite in. Turned out it was a Linda McCartney mozzarella quarter-pounder. More fool me.
Had I really forgotten what real meat tasted like? Maybe. Did it matter if it was too similar to the real thing? Maybe not. There are plant-based products for everyone now, from die-hard vegans who shun the meat aesthetic, to fast food fanatics who can’t bear to part ways with fleshy, deep-fried indulgences.
“Gone are the days when meat-free dishes are on the menu to cater for the minority,” states Phil Thornborrow, head of foodservice at Quorn. “Meat-free dishes now need to cater for the mass market.” Damn straight. The plant life is no longer a trend, people. It’s the norm.
“One in eight in the UK is now either vegetarian or vegan, with between one in five and one in three identifying as a meat reducer or flexitarian,” agrees Gordon Lauder, managing director of Central Foods. “The numbers who signed up for this year’s Veganuary was up 37% from 2019 and recent Mintel research reveals 65% of Brits ate meat-free foods last year.”
But this isn’t just a menu box-ticking exercise. You’d be surprised at the level of quality guests expect from the meat alternatives being served up. According to research by Lantmännen Unibake’s Americana brand, vegan menu choices often fall short of consumer expectations.
“In fact, 62% of consumers do not feel that meat-free burgers match the quality and variety of meat-based counterparts,” notes Kate Sykes, marketing manager for Lantmännen Unibake UK. “The fact that only 24% of consumers would currently rate the vegan offering in restaurants, bars and pubs at four out of five stars or above clearly highlights the need for operators to up their vegan game and enhance their menus.”
Vegan curry house SpiceBox founder Grace Regan agrees that there are some ‘rubbish’ meat alternatives out there, meaning that the texture and flavour don’t stand up to meat.
“Also, we need to be conscious about what goes into these products – more often than not you’d be better off eating a banging vegetable dish – both in terms of nutrition and flavour,” she adds. “Many of our guests come to SpiceBox not realising it’s 100% vegan. Some will even order dishes like Chick’n Tikka Masala and eat it not realising our soy-based chick’n product isn’t the ‘real deal’. These are the type of consumers who wouldn’t actively choose a mock meat product but, once they taste it, they realise how delicious and realistic meat alternatives can be.”
All hail seitan!
So, what exactly should you be serving to guests who might opt for plant-based on this occasion, but who are just as likely to sink their teeth into quality
meat on their next meal out?
“People are interested in trying things beyond the traditional meat replacements of wheat, gluten and soy, and are now beginning to look for less refined and processed alternatives,” says Christa Bloom-Burrows, co-founder and marketing director of Biff ’s Kitchen. “But there’s also caution shown towards some of the highly technical developments happening, such as lab meat and The Impossible Burger – which is huge in the US but is banned in Europe due to certain GMO ingredients.”
Seitan is one product with the potential to mimic the flavour and texture of meat, and so is becoming an increasingly popular option for operators. But it’s difficult to get right: it can become dense, chewy and bloating without the right care.
“In terms of making the seitan, it takes a lot of trial and error to get it right that’s for sure,” explains Patrick O’Shea, who founded London eatery Temple of Seitan with his partner Rebecca five years ago. “It’s a really tough ingredient to work with. It’s a real challenge now to try and make sure the quality is there. Before it was a very niche product and people were very understanding. Now, you’ve really got to be at the top of your game.”
The pair opened their first restaurant in Hackney in 2017, having stormed the capital’s street markets serving up their plant-based take on fried chicken. But their success has not been without its challenges – not least trying to explain what Temple of Seitan means to new suppliers over the phone…
“Scaling up has been tough and every day has been a massive learning curve,” O’Shea tells me. “Because it’s not something that’s been done on a large scale by anyone in the UK, it’s been very tough to source ingredients, to find partners who can help you, because lots of processes haven’t been done before.”
Tribulations aside, thousands have been gobbling up their seitan, with diverse demographics choosing their menu for reasons ranging from religion, to health and sustainability.
“We have no one type of customer,” O’Shea adds, adding to the notion that vegans and vegetarians can’t really be pinned down as strict consumer segments anymore. And despite hordes entering their ‘temple’, you won’t find a preacher there.
“Over time, we found it was more effective to show people the benefits of veganism, rather than ‘telling them off’,” O’Shea says. “Rebecca uses the food as a vehicle to show people that veganism is actually really easy, and you don’t have to miss out. We never wanted to push the agenda too much in store, we’d rather just let the food do the talking for us.”
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