The Rise of Plant-Based Restaurants

The restaurant industry received a shock this past May, one that could redefine the way chefs, diners, and food critics around the world think of fine dining. Chef Daniel Humm, whose Eleven Park Madison was once named the best restaurant in the world, declared that he would stop serving meat. And seafood. And dairy. In fact, except for milk and honey offered during tea service, the entire menu would be (gulp)…vegan. In a letter posted to the restaurant’s website, Humm explained his decision:
In the midst of last year, when we began to imagine what EMP would be like after the pandemic…we realized that not only has the world changed, but that we have changed as well. We have always operated with sensitivity to the impact we have on our surroundings, but it was becoming ever clearer that the current food system is simply not sustainable, in so many ways.
Though it may be the most famous—and, potentially, the most influential—plant-based restaurant, Eleven Madison Park is not the first. In fact, it joins the ranks of other notable examples across the industry that have sprouted up over the years. These include Dominique Crenn, a Michelin-starred chef who removed meat from her restaurants in 2019, as well as Epicurious, a popular food website that stopped including recipes for beef earlier this year. In announcing their decisionEpicurious echoed Chef Humm’s concerns, calling their choice “a shift about sustainability; not anti-beef but pro-planet.” Sustainable cooking and kitchen practices are major factors influencing the recent proliferation of plant-based restaurants, but they’re not the only ones. From vegan fast-food options designed to modernize menus and attract new customers, to a heightened focus on catering to diners with food sensitivities, there are a variety of reasons why vegan options have become one of the food industry’s biggest trends. 
Gourmet vegan food

Boosting Sustainability with Vegan Menu Items

It’s been well-established in scientific circles that vegan diets are the most sustainable. A 2019 report prepared by more than 100 scientists for the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that the West’s high consumption of meat and dairy is a significant contributor to climate change. Western farming practices fuel global warming in multiple damaging ways. 
Emissions

The emissions caused by raising livestock are a major environmental issue. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations reports that global livestock creates 7.1 gigatons of carbon dioxide annually, or roughly 14.5% of total CO2 emissions. Cattle raised for beef and dairy are the worst offenders, representing 65% of those emissions (pigs and poultry account for 9% and 8%, respectively). Carbon dioxide isn’t the only harmful gas caused by livestock either. These animals are also responsible for 44% of the world’s methane and 53% of the world’s nitrous oxide.

What do all these statistics mean? The gases caused by meat and dairy production are slowly causing global temperatures to rise above a sustainable threshold. This has implications for an array of detrimental effects on the environment, including rising sea levels, the degradation and desertification of soil, and an uptick in catastrophic draughts, wildfires, and storms.

Land and Resource Use

Agricultural land comprises 38% of the world’s land surface, or 5 billion hectares. About one-third of that land is used for growing crops, while the remaining two-thirds is allotted for grazing livestock. This disproportionate use of land is especially stark when you consider the inefficiency of raising livestock. In an interview with Epicurious, climate expert Richard Waite breaks it down like this: 

Globally it takes about twenty times the amount of land and emits twenty times the greenhouse gases to produce a calorie of beef as it does to produce a calorie of beans. So if you think about beans’ land use and greenhouse gas emissions, they are twenty times more efficient of a protein source than beef. 

Then there’s the matter of deforestation. Vast swaths of forest are cleared every year to make more pastureland for livestock. In many parts of the world, including the Amazon rainforest, trees are burned to speed up the clearing process. The removal of millions of acres of forest has a two-fold impact on climate change: 1) We lose trees that would otherwise remove CO2 from the atmosphere, and 2) Fires used to clear them release additional greenhouse gases. 

The world’s growing population only exacerbates these issues, as inefficient farming practices and crop choices can no longer sustain food demands. In other words, if people consume less meat, farmers can use less acreage to feed more people worldwide.

Given all this, it should be clear that the consumption of animal products has a massive impact on the environment. However, the scientists who penned the IPCC’s study are not telling every man, woman, and child in the world to switch to a vegan diet. This is how environmental scientist Pete Smith explained it to the BBC: “We’re not telling people to stop eating meat. In some places people have no other choice. But it’s obvious that in the West we’re eating far too much.”

In other words, simply reducing the consumption of animal products can help slow climate change. While veganism is preferable, switching to a vegetarian or flexitarian diet is still impactful. Restaurants that want to improve sustainability can promote these eco-friendly dietary behaviors by expanding their vegetarian and vegan menu options.

The Big Business of Meat Alternatives

Still, restaurants are businesses first and foremost. As such, revenue tends to drive their decisions more than environmental and social impacts. Fortunately for the planet, plant-based products are one of the fastest-growing food categories in retail, valued at $7 billion in 2020. This is an astonishing 27% increase over the previous year; what’s more, the market share increased consistently across all U.S. regions, meaning it’s not just a niche urban market. Meat alternatives accounted for $1.4 billion in sales, with this segment growing twice as fast as traditional packaged meats. As consumer demand for plant-based foods continues to climb at the grocery store, fast food restaurants have rushed to stake their claims in this hot market. Burger King, Taco Bell, White Castle, Wendy’s, and Dunkin’ have all had recent success adding meat alternatives to their menus. Most of these fast-food options rely on products from two industry newcomers, Beyond Meat and Impossible. Both companies produce plant-based meat alternatives that mimic the look, taste, and texture of real beef—right down to “beefy” juices replicated by combining coconut oil and beet extract. 

Burger King’s Impossible Whopper was especially popular, improving sales 5% in the quarter they hit the market. This success inspired McDonald’s to sign a three-year deal with Beyond Meat, who joined forces with the fast-food giant to create a new McPlant sandwich set to roll out later in 2021. 

Increased profits are only one potential benefit of adding more vegan or meat-free options to your menu. Market research has also determined that plant-based options tend to attract more Millennial and Gen Z dinersCompared to older generations, both of these cohorts are more keenly invested in choosing meals based on health and sustainability. And since Millennials are set to outpace Boomers as the generation that spends the most on dining out, it’s more important than ever to begin catering to their environmentally conscientious food sensibilities.

Veggie burger

Tips for Creating a More Vegan-Friendly Kitchen

Avoid cross-contamination by outfitting your kitchen with separate fryers for meat and plant-based items. Designate a meat-free section on your charbroiler or griddle, as well.

A Brighter Beefless Future?

Let’s flashback to Daniel Humm and his newly meat-free Eleven Madison Park. Fast-food franchises have already proven that there’s a market for plant-based alternatives, but does that same desire extend to the upper echelon of fine dining? It may be too soon to give a definitive answer, but the reservation book at EMP hints at one. Since announcing their new meat-free menu, Eleven Madison Park has accumulated a waiting list of 15,000 people, and they’re booked out months in advance. Plus, their food costs have decreased dramatically, but guests are paying the same price for the vegan pre-fixe meal as they did for the meatier version. Only time will tell if this is the result of foodie curiosity or something more. However, the recent trends in retail and fast food seem to suggest that there’s been a fundamental shift in the way many Americans select the foods they eat. If that’s true, plant-based restaurants might be better positioned to meet evolving customer demands, while others will need innovate to capture their share of the market. From minimizing food waste to opting for more efficient equipment, restaurants can work towards a sustainable future in so many meaningful ways. Still, few things make a greater impact than reducing the use of animal products—especially beef. This simple act can change diners’ tastes and habits, help the planet, and maybe even help your bottom line.
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