Friday, November 11, 2011

Meet the Flexitarian: The Growth of the Veggie Market

A matter of only a few years ago, the term “vegetarian” often raised eyebrows and was certainly not on the tip of any new restaurant owner’s tongue. However, the recent rise of environmental awareness and health-conscious dining has elevated vegetarianism from taboo to buzzword. Nowadays, with recent studies showing that 3.2 percent of U.S. adults (amounting to 7.3 million people) follow a vegetarian-based diet and that a far greater number are looking to embrace the trend, the inclusion of vegetarian options in a restaurant menu is not only recommended, but increasingly necessary.

Restaurant owners can unwittingly shut out an entire growing demographic of potential diners by ignoring the rising number of vegetarians. Recent trends in the food industry have seen a backlash against what has been referred to as “meat mania”—restaurants such as KFC offering their notorious “Double Down” sandwich, which features a bacon-and-cheese center with two pieces of fried chicken acting as “buns” and rings in at 32 g of fat. Instead, according to a recent USA Today survey, “some 47 percent of Americans are trying to reduce meat consumption” and restaurants are feeling the push. The Subway sandwich chain outlet recently overtook the McDonalds behemoth on total amount of stores open worldwide—33,749 compared to 32,737 at the end of 2010—and their easily-customizable vegetarian options are partly to thank.

Many other chain restaurants are providing more vegetarian-friendly options, including fast-food chain Burger King, who offer a soy-based vegetarian patty alternative to their normal hamburgers. Chipotle, a booming company known for their innovative approach to fast food, boasts a “food with integrity” take on the industry by focusing on sustainable meats and local, organic produce—not to mention hearty, satisfying vegetarian options that even omnivores can find appealing. Flat Top Grill, a “create-your-own-stirfry” concept chain based in Chicago, IL, offers an extensive host of meat substitutes ranging from mushroom meat to wheat meat to soy proteins along with their selection of traditional meats. These emerging trends show that the “ick” factor previously associated with meat substitute products is quickly dissipating as these substitutes start to look, feel, and taste more like real meat.

The “Meatless Monday” initiative by the U.S. Food Administration, originally started in the midst of World War I and recreated in 2003 as public health awareness program, has gathered a huge following of so-called “flexitarians”—people who cut back on meat on a regular basis but do not identify as full vegetarians. This alternative option, which provides a step back from the cut-and-dry categories that can intimidate some meat eaters, has been named one of the top marketing trends for 2011 by USA Today, and the Hospitality World Network. The market is only growing, with customers becoming more receptive to meat substitutes and veggie-based entrĂ©es. Restaurants who heed the vegetarian movement will be a step ahead, as the search for healthy and environmentally-conscious alternatives broadens and grows.