Despite our modern obsession with all things health, the most popular vegetables in the United States are still potatoes and tomatoes — better understood in the form of french fries and ketchup. This has been a constant for decades, and one that’s likely to remain for the foreseeable future. Even still, other vegetables prepared in innovative forms — think cauliflower steaks and jalapeño hush puppies — have been creeping in on various menus. Unlike the venerable french fry, they’ve graduated from side-dish status to main event.
“We’ve seen a huge increase in the notion of plant-based food,” Kara Nielsen, a trend consultant at Innova Market Insights, said in an interview. The term “plant-based” is inclusive of vegetarian and vegan, but unlike those V-words that conjure concepts of elitism, a preachiness or inaccessibility for some, it’s not indicative of any particular lifestyle. Plant-based is as simple as it sounds, and the people are here for it — even meat-loving people.
For any trend to take off, it needs to have “drivers” that connect to consumer values, Nielson said. As a trend, plant-based foods can reach a more diverse set of values — including but not limited to environmental, health, cruelty-free, seasonal, local — and thus, a greater customer base, compared to more niche vegan or vegetarian foods. To capitalize off the trend, food brands and restaurateurs need to play along. In this sense, an outright proclamation of being “vegetarian” can be unintentionally outcasting: It diminishes client potential, or, simply put, proud carnivores won’t be waiting in line.
Vegetables, not vegetarian
“I’m a chef and my job is to make your food taste really delicious,” Dirt Candy’s Amanda Cohen said in an interview. “My job isn’t to be your medicine cabinet.”
Cohen’s New York City restaurant, which includes dishes like Korean Fried Broccoli (described as “crack in broccoli form”), is technically vegetarian, and the menu even denotes when a dish is completely vegan. But Cohen insists this is just a result of using vegetables as a medium. Her restaurant may be one of the first, but it’s not the only one positioning veggies in a whole new light: Baltimore’s Encantada, Chicago’s Ground Control and Los Angeles’ PYT are among many that put the focus on vegetables, not necessarily on being “healthy.”
Cohen wants to avoid pigeonholing her restaurant as vegetarian, even though, by definition, it is. So if not vegetarian, why vegetables? “I like them. They’re exciting, they’re the forgotten hero of the food world. There’s so much you can do with them,” Cohen listed off. “There’s nothing wrong with being vegetarian — it’s just not the goal of this restaurant,” the chef and restaurateur said. “There’s no environmental issues, there’s no health-related issues [that Dirt Candy is focused on], it’s about food.”
But health and environmental benefits are built into eating vegetables; just because a chef or restaurant chooses to omit the benefits from the marketing doesn’t mean the benefits are erased. Presenting vegetables as something delicious, rather than something healthful, makes the consumer who chooses to eat them feel more in control. “People want to eat better but they’re not going to eat something because they’re told to,” David Sax, author of The Tastemakers: Why We’re Crazy For Cupcakes But Fed Up With Fondue, said in an interview. “What works is someone eating something that they think is delicious and they want to eat it again.” Bring on the vegetable crack, then.
What draws customers to order veggies
Americans are still predominantly meat-eaters, and there’s a longstanding sentiment that anything that constitutes a “meal” will have an animal-based protein at its center. But this is slowly changing. A study by the National Dietary Resources Defense Council found that Americans decreased their beef consumption by 19% between 2005 and 2014. They also ate less pork, shellfish and chicken, but the drop was less significant.
At Bevy, a high-end restaurant inside the Park Hyatt New York, vegetables get their own subdivision on the booklet-style menu, with a purposeful positioning at the top right — the most visible section of the menu, head chef Chad Brauze said in an interview. “We were very deliberate so that people saw vegetables first,” Brauze said. Unlike at Dirt Candy, there are meat options at this hotel restaurant, but it’s dishes like crispy lemon oyster mushrooms with pickled ramps and heirloom tomatoes with Kalamata tapenade and feta that first get guests’ attention.
“It’s easier to price them more attractively,” Brauze said of his decision to put veggies front and center. “I can price a vegetable from $9 to $15 and it allows a table to get more.” At Bevy, Brauze said a table of two will order, on average, four to five vegetable dishes, and might split one entree to make room for more of the meat-free choices.
It doesn’t hurt that vegetables happen to be really good-looking. “[Vegetables do] a lot for making a table beautiful, and you know Instagram is such a big part of being in a restaurant nowadays, that any time you can help create a beautiful scene, people will take a picture of it. It keeps you relevant,” Brauze said.
Brauze works directly with Zaid, a farmer at Norwich Meadows Farm, for recipe inspiration. Zaid will bring seed catalogues to Brauze’s kitchen, or email him a list of what’s being harvested. The chef is always in testing mode, playing around with produce to find interesting ways to cook and present it. The growing options for new, cool and uncommon vegetables — remember when you didn’t know what ube was? — increases customers’ desire.
Vegetables can be the future of food
Plant-based dining is inarguably popular, but most of us still aren’t eating our vegetables. A 2015 study found that 91% of Americans don’t meet the dietary guidelines around vegetable consumption. Dirt Candy’s Cohen was adamant that while we’re seeing more vegetables on menus, eating green isn’t really a “mainstream trend.”
“It’s important to recognize that this is [mostly] happening in the coastal areas of the country,” Cohen said. Yes, food trends often emerge from the outer parts of the country and move inward, the chef agreed, but it takes time.
To make vegetable consumption more mainstream, enticing vegetables need to reach the mainstream. So, while trendsetters may roll their eyes by the time big corporations catch on, it’s a positive thing when a company like McDonald’s rolls out a kale salad or a kale-topped burger to its menu. “When McDonald’s [adopts vegetable trends], that’s when the trend matters — when it reaches that mass market,” Sax said.
Moments like this give everyone a chance to love kale — not just those privileged enough to make food Instagram a full-time job — and can help people become more comfortable with buying green items outside of the fast food joint. “You need companies like McDonald’s — they’re the ones that really move the needle,” Cohen said.
When a business like McDonald’s, which serves 68 million people every day, takes on a food trend, “the economic impact reverberates throughout the entire food system,” Sax said. “The purchasing size is a signal to the rest of the industry that there’s a shift in a collective appetite.” Beyond McDonald’s, companies like Chipotle (see: Sofritas) and Tyson (see: Beyond Meat) are making moves to tap into plant-based options. “They’re recognizing that there is a market,” Nielson said, “they want to play, too.”