With some estimates putting the number of vegetarians and vegans in the UK at around 12%, even operators whose USP is high-quality meat are making sure they are growing their plant-based options.
“When you’ve got a group of friends, there is more likely now for perhaps one of that party of six to say, actually, I don’t want to eat meat,” Tracey Matthews, COO of Prime Steak & Grill, tells Food Spark.
Matthews is an expert on the premium meat category, having previously spent 18 years at Gaucho, fulfilling roles that included managing director and head of operations.
While she’s confident there is still plenty of room for steak-centric establishments (“I think the beauty of steak is that it will always be considered that little cheat of luxury”), she also points out that these concepts still have to make sure they can accommodate vegetarians or risk losing out on diners.
“It’s just making sure that there is enough else on the menu that when people are going out with a group of friends, they are all able to come to that restaurant because we’re making sure they’re being taken care of as well,” she adds.
At present, Prime has just two vegetarian mains: a grilled halloumi burger with portobello mushroom, sautéed peppers and pesto ricotta in a toasted brioche bun, and pumpkin ravioli with chestnut mushrooms, champagne cream sauce and vegetarian parmesan.
However, the head chef has been experimenting with creating something “fresh and exciting” for the next menu change; “tongue-in-cheek options” that can hold provide an experience akin to that of chomping into a juicy steak.
“A lot of restaurants will just do a stuffed tomato with some couscous for their vegan dish. That’s not okay,” says Matthews. “It needs to have the same precision and quality and focus on provenance of ingredients that the rest of our menu does.”
The mooted new options – which are expected to debut at the end of May or early June – are unlikely to include meat replacements, with Prime instead focusing on “getting really creative” with veg, including perhaps cauliflower, “seeing how we can present that elegantly and in line with the rest of the menu offering.”
But it’s not all about the veg…
Despite all this talk about plant-based options, Prime Steak & Grill are doing a roaring trade in rib-eye and sirloin, matched by an “unending love” for crispy salt and pepper squid, pan-seared scallops, and Taylor’s port and chicken liver pate.
“I think where we operate, because we are that luxury experience, what has also been popular since it’s been on the menu are our cuts for sharing: the chateaubriand, the porterhouse,” notes Matthews. “Periodically, we put the tomahawk on, which brings out the inner carnivore – it has a real man vs meat type feeling to it!”
Prime also runs specials, most recently a filet Oscar.
“Sometimes guests are looking for us to present a steak as a finished dish,” remarks Matthews, which is why the kitchen experiments with ways to dress a steak as much as with cuts.
The brand is hoping to introduce more seasonality from this summer, especially with its lunch offering, the aim being to change it at least four times a year.
Matthews says that since she joined Prime, her biggest focus has been on talent development and retention strategies (“I think that’s the biggest hurdle facing hospitality at the moment”), as well as giving each site a distinct personality through bespoke activities.
“We’ve got a gin garden coming in Chandlers Cross in a month’s time,” she notes. “At Beaconsfield in our bar, we’ve introduced a [cocktail] masterclass series.”
Additionally, Prime has plans to grow beyond its current three-strong estate – though they are fiercely avoiding London, instead focusing on the M25 belt and further out in the commuter community. There’s a particular focus on Essex, where Matthews sees “a huge opportunity” for the brand.
“We’re very proud of the fact that we don’t operate in London and our aim is never to be in London, but we offer that level of dining experience that people would be used to in London – without the train journey,” concludes Matthews. “When you have a business that is probably 70% repeat business, it’s making sure the offer stays fresh and vibrant and that you are the go-to restaurant for your local community.”