CSP Magazine

Opinion: Vegetables Take Center Stage

Get ready for a growing interest, particularly among younger consumers, in healthy, clean foods

Move over, meat—the veggies are coming! Growing interest, particularly among younger consumers, in healthy, clean foods that deliver on nutrition and functionality is pushing vegetables to center stage.

Technomic research finds 41% of consumers in the past year have increased their orders involving vegetables either as an entree or as an entree ingredient, or topping a salad, soup or sandwich. And 25% of younger consumers have increased purchases of vegetarian/vegan items in restaurants and other foodservice outlets. Nearly seven in 10 consumers (68%) report trying to eat healthier, and they consider vegetarian options as fitting the bill.

Fear not, convenience foodservice pros. The broad trend isn’t so much a move away from meat as it is a shifting of vegetables to the center of the plate. Proteins are increasingly playing the role of sides, toppings or ingredients to vegetable-focused dishes. This is occurring as consumers gravitate to the nutrient-rich, clean and flavorful attributes of vegetables but still value the savory and satiating aspects of meats and poultry. While the incidence of vegetable-centric dishes is down on restaurant menus overall due to menu consolidation, Technomic’s MenuMonitor, powered by Ignite, shows veggie bowls and vegetable sides such as carrots, beets and cauliflower are increasing.

Fast-casual chains are getting in on the action. In June, Rubio’s introduced its Cilantro Lime Quinoa Bowl, featuring fire-roasted veggies, avocado, black beans, cilantro-lime mojo sauce and toasted almonds. Patrons can include grilled seafood or chicken. The bowl effectively puts veggies and plant-based ingredients at the center and positions protein as the add-on.

Add-On Choices

This veggie-forward trend presents c-store foodservice operators with challenges and opportunities. Produce is tricky for the convenience channel. Consumers are still warming to the notion that c-stores can deliver on fresh fruit, salads and vegetables, and operators are often concerned about offending the sensibilities of their roller-grill-loving core consumer by going green. Produce also presents back-of-house issues related to storage and safe handling, although many c-stores are increasingly relying on commissary partners to provide solutions.

A big question is how and where to work more veggie- and plant-based items into c-store foodservice. Snacks are a prime opportunity: The incidence of carrots on c-store menus has increased 8.1% over the past five years, according to MenuMonitor. Carrot sticks offered with ranch dressing or hummus are gaining space in c-stores, positioned as a better-for-you snack.

As for entrees, veggie bowls present a compelling, customizable option for those with made-to-order offerings. Also, Casey’s General Stores offers a vegetarian option for its breakfast and flatbread pizzas. Veggie burgers are gaining attention, with fast-casual concepts such as b.good in Boston offering housemade plant-based patties. Eighteen percent of consumers prefer a vegetable/garden patty for their burgers. Technomic’s Burger Consumer Trend Report, powered by Ignite, also found consumers are most interested in those made with vegetable blends, beans, mushrooms and grains.

Sides and appetizers are another opportunity. Sheetz and Rutter’s Farm Stores offer fried pickles. Fried  zucchini has increased 2.3% on limited-service-restaurant menus over the past 12 months; perhaps a next step for c-stores is breaded vegetable appetizers, snacks or sides.

The imperative of going green isn’t likely to subside, because the demand is driven by young consumers interested in foods that are better for you and better for the planet. Older consumers are in tune as well. Convenience operators should look for opportunities on their menus to introduce vegetables and plant-based ingredients, and work with their supplier and commissary partners to meet this growing demand.

Donna Hood Crecca is associate principal of Chicago-based foodservice research and consulting firm Technomic. Reach her at dcrecca@technomic.com.

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