From Ballparks to Dining Halls, Plant-Forward Is Sprouting Up

Health & Wellness |  5.15.2018

Gone are the days when ‘vegetarian’ meant bland tofu or flavorless soybean burgers. Today’s chefs are inspiring a whole new generation of foodies with delicious creations like the Beyond Burger and the unexpectedly-vegan poke bowl made with Ahimi. These new culinary masterpieces are delighting consumers with their impressive taste profiles, and they’re not just coming from hip local restaurants or food trucks. They’re showing up everywhere, from ballparks to college dining halls.

Even though most Americans still gravitate toward meat as the main component of meals, a recent Nielsen survey reveals that 4 out of 10 consumers are actively trying to incorporate more plant-based foods into their diets. This trend means consumers are increasingly choosing plant-forward options with both their wallets and their palates. 

Plant-forward is a style of cooking and eating that emphasizes vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts—recognizing that animal protein can be included in smaller portions. At Aramark, our chefs are finding this style offers numerous opportunities to be creative in the kitchen.

We piloted vegan poke bowls at college and corporate dining locations this March to test consumer reaction.

Marion Gibson, Director of Culinary Development for Business Dining, has plant-forward roots. “My love for plant-based ingredients stems from my upbringing in Texas, where my mother kept a kitchen garden on two acres,” she says. Gibson ultimately became a chef and remembers her early years growing up among fruit and nut trees.

One of the key motivators behind the plant-forward movement are the benefits to health, a topic that has retained our focus for many years. We partnered with the American Heart Association to improve the health of Americans, through menu innovation work to increase the amount of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and other plant-based ingredients on our menus by 20% by 2020. Providing plant-forward options not only helps us meet this goal, but helps our consumers feel in control of their own wellness by having a wealth of options to pick from.

Mainstreaming Plant-Forward

The Aramark insights team sees consumers as the drivers behind this recent change. “The majority of consumers are seeking to reduce their meat in at least some capacity, primarily to be healthier. In fact, 70% of consumers would like to eat less meat or are actively doing so as found in our 2018 Plant Forward Study,” says Jill Marchick, AVP Consumer Insights.

Even major participants in the food industry such as Nestle and Tyson Foods, who both announced major investments in plant-based proteins, are seeing the market potential and impact.

The World Resources Institute Better Buying Lab partnered with the London School of Economics on a recent study that shows menu framing had an influence on diners’ ordering behavior. Megan Hingst, a director on the product development team, hones in on how we have applied some of the research findings; “Continuing to offer plant-based options alongside their meat-based recipe counterparts is important in helping our guests find the dishes that meet their lifestyle and dietary preferences,” she says. “Identifying plant-forward dishes with appetizing and exciting names can also ensure the dish is approachable to both meat and non-meat eaters alike.”

Plant-Forward in Practice

Our plant-forward approach harnesses culinary expertise to create meal options that consumers recognize as high-quality, healthy, accessible, sustainable, and delicious. Culinary team members are empowered to bring their best skills to bear. We regularly encourage our chefs to submit recipe ideas like our spring menu’s portobello burger through our Innovation Exchange program, but when the category shifts to plant-forward, the challenge becomes even more exciting.

Plant forward

Chefs Mike Coble and Masa Yamashita participated in a plant-based culinary workshop this Spring in partnership with the Humane Society of the United States.

“What entices chefs is that there are no hard and fast rules when creating plant-forward dishes. We highlight all of the flavors and textures that fruits, vegetables, legumes and grains have to offer. It is a great learning experience for chefs to experiment while creating dishes that make plants the hero of the plate,” Gibson says.

Consumers are responding well, and not only in universities and healthcare settings—where demand for healthful food is well-defined—but also in entertainment venues such as ballparks, where options like our Vegan’Acho Nacho are defying expectations.

Operationalizing with Plant-Friendly Partners

Providing more plant-forward options starts with thinking creatively and holistically. Strategic partnerships with organizations such as the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) have been key in adding to our menus. Hingst explains: “We have been working with HSUS to hold plant-based workshops for chefs. We use a ‘train the trainer’ approach—bringing in key leaders to give them skills they can take back and implement,” she says. This approach to menu development has involved a variety of partners, such as NGOs, plant-based consumer brands and restaurant owners, to help think through new menu items and provide additional perspectives.”

Chefs learn to innovate with unique ingredients like Gardein, a plant-protein “meat”; aquafaba, the “water” or liquid of cooked chickpeas often used as an alternative to egg whites (which makes a fabulous Meringue); and nutritional yeast, often used to add a nutty, creamy, or cheesy flavor in vegan or vegetarian recipes.

Partnerships with pioneering food suppliers and produce associations like the Mushroom Council and national watermelon and mango boards—have allowed us to achieve 30 percent of our menu selections in workplaces, hospital cafes and college residential dining halls as vegetarian or vegan.

“It’s very exciting to give consumers the ability to enjoy their favorite meal and eat their vegetables. We are looking for new ways to call out plant-forward items on the menu in a meaningful way that will highlight their innovation,” says Hingst. Our chefs who participated in the plant-based workshops are particularly excited as they get to see the recipes they worked to perfect featured on the menu. Getting that opportunity to challenge themselves to be creative with new ingredients and flavors can be very rewarding.

Growing a Plant-Forward Plan

By conducting ongoing consumer research, we can gauge demand for plant-forward offerings and determine how to present the foods we create as a result. Since we serve millions of meals at thousands of locations each year, we have the unique opportunity and responsibility to provide healthy options that taste great to a large population of people.

Plant forward

The flavor-packed Pumpkin Curry Vegetable Sautee proves plant-based doesn’t mean sacrificing taste. Thirty percent of our main dishes are vegan or vegetarian across Healthcare, Higher Education and Business Dining.

Consumers are becoming more and more aware of how their diet affects their health, but that awareness is just the beginning. With the help of our team members and partners, we’re committed to creating and serving healthy, delicious meals, while making a convenient dining experience for the consumer. We’ve found that listening to demand, sharing knowledge across the organization, and surrounding ourselves with supportive partners helps to build the foundation for a shift like this to be a successful one.

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