Meet the Expert
Who: Andrew Stephen
Countless reports have been published in the last 18 months highlighting the plight of the planet and the drastic action we need to take to ensure we keep temperature rises below 1.5C. So if that’s the necessity, where’s the opportunity for, and examples of, invention?
The good news for all of us is that our appetites are incredibly powerful. The choices we make about food can have the greatest single impact on the planet – greater even than the car we drive or the planes we take. Food accounts for about a quarter of all emissions, with animal products being the single biggest contributor.
Respected organisations such as Oxford University, EAT Lancet, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the World Resources Institute are all pushing for a serious shift towards more planet-based menus too.
This provides chefs and menu developers with a big slice of power – the ability to influence what we eat and encourage behaviour change towards a genuine shift for taking up less environmentally damaging diets. This chance to grab the sustainability bull by the horns also comes at precisely the time when the British dining public is looking for ways to eat towards a better food future.
When the Sustainable Restaurant Association interviewed industry leaders and chefs about their approach to this issue at the beginning of 2019 for its The Tastiest Challenge on the Planet report, there was a real sense that we were on the cusp of something.
Steve Holmes, CEO of Azzurri Group, parent company of Zizzi, saw vegan dishes account for 8% of main course sales in 2018. He reflected the views of many in the industry, that while appreciating customers changing tastes, they were cautious about moving too far too fast.
“There is less meat on the menu, and that’s a result of customer-informed menu development rather than us deciding we want less meat on the menu. We’re facilitating a movement not dictating change,” he explained.
Planting cross pollination among chefs
With a diverse network of foodservice operators representing 10,000 sites across the UK, the SRA is positioned to cross pollinate the most innovative ideas and practices. A great example of this saw chefs from HQ Theatres and Hospitality, a network of 12 restaurants, travel from across the UK for a menu-development masterclass from the kitchen team at London business The Good Egg.
HQ’s head of food, Paul Lawman, had been struggling to extract excitement or inspiration from his team when he asked them to submit veg-led dishes at menu creation meetings.
“From some I would just get knocked back and others would do something as an afterthought,” Lawman said. “I really wanted the chefs to understand that veg-led dishes could be delicious and as good, if not better, than meat-based ones. Plant-based really was just a bolt on to the bottom of the menu: ‘Oh they can have a salad,’ was the attitude of some of them.”
Half a day at The Good Egg sampling a distinctly vegetable-heavy tasting menu, discussing provenance, menu language and positioning had the desired effect.
“My chefs were absolutely blown away,” he commented. “They finally understood what you can do with simple ingredients. That you can make them taste great, and by describing them alluringly, make them sound great too. It was fantastic to see them realise what can be achieved – that there really is a market for veg-led food and that you don’t have to put meat on every plate to make customers feel like they’re full and are getting value for money.”
The impact on the menu, and most importantly on sales, has been transformational. There are now no meat starters at HQ venues, the new vegan main dish – a jackfruit curry – accounts for 6% of sales and has been pinching share from the two biggest favourites – fish and chips and the burger.
Lawson is confident that he can build on this initial success with more menu innovation.
“It has proved that even in our really traditional northern venues there is a shift going on,” he added. “In fact, there was also some resistance to us putting avocado on toast with Mediterranean veg on the menu – now that accounts for 7-8% of sales.”
Team buy in
There’s no question that the genie is out of the bottle when it comes to veggie alternatives, with the likes of KFC and Greggs enjoying substantial sales boosts with their non-meat burger and sausage roll.
One of the operators to experience the greatest success in shifting its sales in a greener direction is Wagamama. Its approach has been built on staff engagement.
“We looked within, to our inspiring league of team members, many of whom are vegan,” Wagamama’s CEO Emma Woods said. “Involving them in the menu process from conception to delivery proved to be an invaluable asset to us on this journey. Dishes like the vegan katsu curry and vegan ramen have flown off the menu.”
Deliveroo recently reported that the vegan katsu curry was their most ordered dish for July.
Baby steps to reducing meat
But for customers not yet ready to ditch their meat altogether, chefs are employing many creative ways to ensure a meaty flavour remains present, using cooking techniques usually associated with meat.
Jareth Mills of the Roebuck pub in south London now serves his burger with two-thirds meat mixed with mushrooms and lentils.
“I would say the flavour is almost identical, but in fact the umami of the mushroom adds more depth. It makes the meat go further and customers love it,” he said.
Whether it’s a wholesale menu transformation or some smart dish redesigns, there are dozens of ways chefs and menu developers can have a major impact on the footprint of their restaurant. In fact, the SRA recently launched its Foodprint programme to help restaurants do just that.