Restaurant brands are hard-pressed to make plant-based foods a central menu focus and maintain profitability. Why? Because it’s estimated that only 4% of US Americans follow a vegan, or solely plant-based, diet.

Of course, there are also vegetarians, straightforward veg-lovers, flexitarians, and the just-plain-curious who eat their fair share of plant-based foods, but still…consumer demand for protein at the center of the plate remains high. Almost three-quarters of consumers try to eat protein, from animals or plants, for more than one day-part meal.

What We Saw At The 2024 NRA Show

The ever-growing plant-based landscape was in full swing again at this year’s NRA show. Take the NRA Show’s FABI Award favorites and winners. (The FABI Awards celebrate the most forward-thinking and creative new tastes driving trends).

  • FABI Award favorites – 3 out of 10 were plant-based and/or vegan
  • FABI Award Recipients – 15 out of 25 were plant-based and/or vegan (not including the beverages)

So how does a restaurant brand balance plant-based trends with the bottom line? We have some ideas.

First, Get To The Root Of Why Customers Choose Plant-Based Foods

Operators need not cater to vegan diners exclusively. However, understanding your customers’ preferences can inspire menu options and substitutions that many people, including plant-based eaters, may enjoy.


Most plant-based foods tend to have more nutrients, lower saturated fats, and higher fiber content, which all contribute to lowered risks of heart disease, diabetes, and certain cancers.

Could vegetables and whole grains take up more of the plate? This is often one surefire way to reduce calorie count, too.

Allergies And Food Sensitivities

Not everyone can eat shellfish, eggs, and other proteins that upset their stomachs, cause inflammation, or worst of all, cause an anaphylaxis reaction. This is where many plant-based foods can really stand out.

However, you don’t necessarily need to substitute a non-plant-based food with a plant-based food. (Why make a chicken nugget a tofu nugget when that tofu can shine in its own right?) However, there are cases where an identical-looking swap that has the same flavor and texture has an impact. Like with eggs.

Our favorite plant-based egg comes from the Just Egg brand out of California. These eggs, made from mung bean protein, can effortlessly fit into menus, delivering on the flavor, texture, and versatility of chicken eggs, but with the health benefits that consumers want to see called out on menus.

Environment And Animal Welfare

Generally speaking, plant-based eating requires fewer natural resources, produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions, and reduces land and water usage compared to animal agriculture. Additionally, many opt for diets that align with their values of compassion and non-exploitation of animals. Gen Z and Millennial consumers are particularly focused on the way food production impacts the climate crisis.

At the end of the day, though, it’s all about taste. While many consumers have ethical reasons for not eating meat products, taste remains the driving force behind consumer choices.

Could you responsibly source your ingredients, including animal protein, and make your values known on the menu and in other company communications?

The Latest And Greatest

Plant-based beef is the poster child for boom and bust food trends. After skyrocketing to fame in 2019 and 2020, the popularity of plant-based meat continues to decline.

New trends are popping up all the time. As seen at this year’s NRA show, plant-based products made from plants are trending and have gone beyond jackfruit. Products made from restorative foods (like seaweed), mung bean, mushrooms, and plants in pure form are gaining traction and popularity.

Instead of investing in full-blown menu changes, consider introducing the “latest and greatest” with a limited-time offer to capitalize on trends and gauge your consumer’s appetite for plant-based offerings.

Second, Look At Plant-Based Like You Do Gluten-Free

Only about 1% of the US population has Celiac Disease and must avoid gluten. Another 15% of the population has nonceliac gluten sensitivity (NCGS), but doesn’t need to 100% avoid gluten (though some do). Depending on where you look, these numbers vary, but the story is this: Since the 2010s, there has been a lot of talk about a gluten-free diet. Yes, it’s important to have gluten-free options / substitutions on your menu, but it doesn’t need to be a primary focus.

Just as it might make sense to offer at least one gluten-free beer, one gluten-free dressing, and to designate one fryer to French fries and all other gluten-free foods, it may also make sense to offer mushrooms as a sub for steak in that salad and plant-based omelets, too.

Diversifying plant-based products across menu categories, formats, and flavors, can strategically position your menu to serve your vegetarian and vegan consumers, as well as those following a flexitarian diet and avoiding meat for other reasons.

Last, Don’t Panic. Just Keep Cooking.

Food and beverage trends come and go all the time. Yes, it may seem that everyone is talking about plant-based at the National Restaurant Association Show, but we assure you that there is time to craft plant-based, or better yet, plant-focused, menu items in the years ahead without being left behind and without hurting the bottom line.

Besides, plant-based is not new. A good salad has always been in style.

Thanks for stopping by and reading the Food & Drink Resources blog. Here we talk about food trends, culinary innovation, and the work of our team.