The last year was a time of reinvention for the restaurant industry. Some establishments went from full service to catering and prepared meal delivery and stayed there. Others saw the pandemic as a time to take a deeper look into the health and wellness of their community and what part they could play in helping others.
Some restauranteurs had made some choices based on fear, like buying a restaurant and fearing changing the menu, even if it didn’t align with their beliefs and moral framework. Of course, they were listening to restauranteur 101—make incremental changes to an existing brand and don’t scare loyal customers away.
But something happened during the pandemic. Something other than fear and sadness and loss. People realized that life as we know it can change in a moment and to the point where it is unrecognizable. Suddenly, their perception shifted. They began looking at changes they’d thought about, maybe for years but never instituted.
The Rise of Plant-Based Foods in Restaurants
One of these changes was transforming to a plant-based menu. In cities like Los Angeles and New York, where popular, profitable vegetarian restaurants abound, that doesn’t require too much of a leap of faith. However, in states like South Dakota, where there are more cattle than humans, it’s a little bit of a stretch. And in rural town Texas, a state where almost 11 million cows reside, you wonder how many ranch hands will head to your competitor for a nice juicy steak once you’re offering a portabella burger.
Business Insider reported on several restaurants that decided during the pandemic to reopen as vegan or vegetarian brands. Let’s take a look at how they’re doing after switching to a plant-based menu.
In Midland, a city in western Texas and the oil industry center, Marcy and Carlos Madrid took over ownership of a restaurant during the pandemic. Brew St.’s menu was meat forward, offering hamburgers and other traditional fares. Despite switching to a plant-based diet five years ago for health reasons, the owners would keep the same menu out of fear of losing customers.
They overcame their fears and decided switching to a vegan menu was the best thing for the community. So, they became West Texas’ first vegan restaurant, offering items like street tacos and burgers made from Beyond Meat’s beef product. They reported immense interest and community support.
Another restaurant that took the plunge into a vegan or vegetarian menu upon reopening was Eleven Madison Park, a Michelin-rated restaurant in the heart of New York City. Their website reads, in part:
“In the midst of last year, when we began to imagine what Eleven Madison Park would be like after the pandemic—when we started to think about food in creative ways again—we realized that not only has the world changed but that we have changed as well. We have always operated with sensitivity to the impact we have on our surroundings. Still, it was becoming clearer that the current food system is not sustainable, in so many ways.”
Today, they develop plant-based butter and cream, explore fermentation, and share the “incredible possibilities of plant-based cuisine.” In June, a reported 15,000 people were on the waitlist.
Why the Growing Demand for Plant-Based Food?
John Robbins blew the whistle on America’s unsustainable meat-based diet, the effects on the environment, and the conditions of animals in factory farms back in 1987 with his best-selling book, Diet for a New America.
Considering the land required to raise animals for food, the farming process and use of fertilizers, transportation, and the methane the animals produce, beef and lamb have the highest carbon footprint. According to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization, meat and dairy account for about 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
Growing animal feed and beef production is also a leading cause of deforestation in other parts of the world, resulting in devastating forest fires. In addition to the environmental impact and animal welfare concerns, people are switching to plant-based diets out of health concerns. Several studies reveal that plant-based diets have beneficial effects on obesity, inflammation, type-2 diabetes, and heart disease.
Today’s growing generations are taking heed and making different choices. In 2020, plant-based food retail sales increased by 27%, almost twice as much as retail food sales, which rose by 15%. Two categories taking up quite a bit of market share include plant-based milk, other dairy products, and meat.
Margo’s Santa Monica is another restaurant that switched to plant-based foods upon reopening. Owner Mark Verge told Business Insider that people overwhelmingly love the menu. “This is the way things are going. This is the future.”