From campus dining halls to corporate cafeterias, patrons are digging into dishes with names like Carrot Osso Bucco, Kung Pao Cauliflower and Fried Avocado Burrito Bowl, enjoying familiar flavors while replacing most or all of the animal products on their plates with plants.
About 46% of consumers say plant-based proteins are better for their health than meat and other animal products, according to research from Mintel.
This month, Sodexo unveiled a new 200-item plant-based and plant-forward menu, developed in partnership with the Humane Society of the United States. Some of the dishes are vegan, some are vegetarian, and the rest include meat but still give plants a starring role, like a blended burger that replaces 25% of the beef with mushrooms.
The new menu items further several of the nine commitments included in the company’s sustainability road map, dubbed Better Tomorrow 2025, said Ted Monk, Sodexo’s vice president of sustainability.
The company has committed to providing healthier lifestyle choices for the consumers it serves, set a goal of cutting carbon emissions 34% from a base of 2010 levels and vowed to take steps to cut food waste. This week, Sodexo also rolled out plans to cut plastic waste by eliminating single-use plastic bags and stirrers by the end of next year and adopting a by-request policy for plastic straws.
“This is very consumer driven,” said Chef Rob Morasco, Sodexo’s senior director of culinary development. “The trend is more plants on the plate, for whatever reason, whether it’s animal welfare, wellness or the environment.”
Whether they identify as vegan, vegetarian, flexitarian or something else altogether, 52% of adults in the US who choose plant-based proteins say they do so because they like the taste, according to Mintel.
The plant-based options “can’t just be that little bullet item on the menu, it has to be crave worthy,” Morasco said.
The new menu items comprise about 40% to 50% of the options at many of Sodexo’s university campus dining halls on any given day, while it’s about 35% to 40% at corporate cafes, he said.
That tracks with another Mintel study that found the biggest increase in sales of plant-based meat alternatives among 18-to-24-year-olds. Additionally, half of consumers age 18-to-34 want to be able to substitute plant-based proteins for animal products, according to Sodexo’s research.
Some of the dishes, like the Noodle Zoodles Bowls, are obviously vegetarian and vegan fare, while others are plant-based replacements for familiar favorites.
“We’re not out to fool anybody, but when you don’t tell people at first, they’re genuinely surprised about what you’re putting in front of them,” Morasco said.
The Chesapeake Cakes are a crab-free crab cakes made with hearts of palm and eggless mayo that come very close to the animal version, he said. There’s also a tiramisu made with cashew-based mascarpone that proved a big hit in testing.
Variety was key in creating the menu, Morasco said, because people look for different types of meals for different reasons and on different occasions.
“We like to use the term ‘choice triggers,’” he said. “Sometimes people want something comforting or recognizable, other times they want adventure.”
Sodexo manages foodservice in about 13,000 client sites in North America alone and the new menu comes with a bit of a learning curve for chefs not used to plant-based cooking. Morasco did virtual training modules and chefs from HSUS also participated in on-site training sessions.
“But once you show folks how to do it, it’s really just basic cooking techniques,” Morasco said. “Chefs by nature are creative people and they’re excited about the opportunity.”