Pork: The Up-And-Coming Trending Restaurant Protein

Around the globe, pork remains the number one source of protein. But where is it on the U.S. restaurant menu? According to one study, only 17% of U.S. restaurants offer pork on the menu as an entree, and, when bacon, sausage, and pepperoni are removed, that statistic drops down to less than 7%.

It seems that the “other white meat” (which is really red meat) has been relegated to an ingredient, where it is featured in over 91% of restaurant menus, but rarely the star.

And yet, consumer surveys suggest that they would like to see more of this protein offered in restaurants. One survey said that customers would even visit those restaurants that offered pork more frequently. In 2020, consumers have opted to increase their pork preparations, with sales increasing by 56% in March.

When operators were surveyed, they reported that they would like to find more ways to add it to their menu and that they think it’s flavorful and versatile.

So, what has created the great divide between consumer preferences and operator follow-through?

Animal Welfare Issues

The beginning of 2015 saw Chipotle Mexican Grill take pork off the menu at a third of its stores. The “sorry, no carnitas” signs emerged after the chain discovered a supplier had violated their animal welfare standards.

Chipotle’s standards include raising the animals in humane conditions with access to the outdoors, no antibiotics, and a vegetarian diet. Chris Arnold, a spokesman for Chipotle, told ABC News, “The standards for all of our Responsibly Raised meats are very high, but the differences in animal welfare are greatest with pork. Given these stark differences, serving pork from conventionally raised pigs is not an option to us.”

Unfortunately, there are factory farms that still use gestation crates and tail-dock the piglets. Fortunately, consumers and state regulators are speaking out.

A recent survey found that almost 75% of respondents were more likely to buy pork products from companies committed to ending the use of gestation crates. As with other animals, consumer’s desire for more humanely raised pork products is changing their buying behavior.

The survey supports diners growing trend toward sustainability and health-conscious eating habits. Almost 45% said that how an animal is treated and sourced weighs on their dining decisions. Their top concerns include sustainability, including where the meat came from, its impact on the environment, and how the animal was treated.

Over 55% of operators agree, noting that more consumers would increase their consumption if the pork was antibiotic-free and sustainably raised.

Is this the great divide? Finding sustainably raised animals? If Chipotle can find a source of sustainably raised pigs, perhaps other operators can too.

Allied Market Research reported that the growing interest in organic pork meat and clean label products presents a lucrative opportunity for those entering the market.

Restaurants Incorporating Pork

As the ongoing love affair with experiential multicultural flavors continues, pork offers a vehicle particularly well-suited for unique ingredients. Pork captures the flavors it’s combined with and goes especially well with some of the trending herbs, spices, and condiments such as papalo, lovage, harissa, pomegranate molasses, and gochujang.

Latin, Asian, and Mexican cuisine often focuses on pork as the star protein. Proponents also suggest using the whole pig, from nose to tail, so that no part goes to waste. In addition to global flavors, consumers are looking for comfort, particularly after the trying year of 2020. Braised or slow-roasted pork can offer both comfort and flavor.

A recent Datassential report suggests that boredom has set in, with 65% of consumers tired of cooking at home, 58% bored of comfort food, and 79% craving something new. As restauranteurs are well aware, it’s hard to keep up with changing consumer tastes and trends. What’s clear is that consumers are ready to head out into the world again and meet with family and friends at their favorite neighborhood diner.

The top reasons they’ll choose the restaurants they do include variety, quality, and trying something new and exciting that they don’t make at home.

Restaurants can capture these diner’s imaginations and taste buds by defining menu items with flair. Instead of listing the basic entree, include the name of the country where the spices come from. A Pulled-Pork Sandwich then becomes a Peruvian Roasted Pork Sandwich, and a Pork Bowl becomes a Korean BBQ Pork Bowl.

With whole and ancient grains still trending, dishes combining the two, such as pork shoulder with freekeh, a popular high-protein super grain used throughout the Middle East and North Africa, could be a calling card for current consumer’s tastes.

The survey also noted that the line between restaurant shifts is becoming blurred, with the breakfast, lunch, and dinner traditions reducing to grazing or simply two meals a day. This change in customs offers operators the opportunity to leverage traditionally “off-times” by offering small plates and appetizers.

The USDA reports that in 2021, farm-level cattle prices are expected to increase between 2.5% and 5.5%, while wholesale pork is only expected to increase between 0.0% and 3.0%.

While streamlining and reducing menu selections may be required for some time as the restaurant industry pulls out of the pandemic scourge, now may be a good time for operators and chefs to consider adding this “other” protein to their menu.

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