By Robin Barr Sussman

With global calls for plant-based eating and the possibility of temporary meat shortages due to the COVID-19 pandemic, eateries are shifting focus. The big question: How to incorporate fresh, plant-based dishes to menus creatively, deliciously and on a large scale?
According to a Healthy Eating report, 86 percent of restaurant operators say that offering vegetarian dishes has a notable impact on increasing sales and traffic. Some are swapping veggies directly for animal proteins in dishes such as jackfruit tacos or jackfruit “chicken” noodle soup, grilled cauliflower “steaks” with sauces, and inventive baked dishes using exotic varieties of squash.

Rather than serving meat alternatives from Beyond Meat or Impossible Foods like the fast-food chains use for burgers, Panera Bread (a large U.S. chain) is serving plant-based whole foods, such as quinoa and edamame. A February survey by market research firm Mintel found that 61 percent of consumers believe that whole plant foods, such as beans, are healthier than processed meat substitutes, like the Impossible Burger.

“Although faux meats are a long-term trend, we are going after plant-based maybe a little bit differently than the mainstream industry,” said Sara Burnett, Vice President of Wellness and Food Policy with Panera Bread. Steel cut oatmeal with strawberries and pecans, peach and blueberry smoothies with almond milk, and vegan salads like the Seasonal Greens with avocado and quinoa are a few options. In 2021, consumers can expect new plant-based products from the sandwich chain in every category.


However, Kimpton Hotel and Restaurant Group with outlets worldwide has predicted in its 2020 trends forecast more plant-based takes on meat dishes will predominate including tartare, burgers and “jerky” and chips made from vegetables like eggplant, carrots, mushrooms and sweet potatoes. Additionally, it cites that chefs will be blending more vegetables into pasta, pizza, breads and sauces, as well as creating more vegan desserts like lemon tarts with nuts crusts and carrot cake.


Ethnic cuisines like Indian, South Asian and Middle Eastern naturally lend themselves to plant-based cooking. At Kiran’s Indian in Houston, chef-owner Kiran Verma touts elaborate animal protein-centric lunch and dinner menus that share space with twenty-plus vegan/vegetarian dishes. Inventive choices include tandoor-roasted eggplant, bhindi masala (okra, fresh coconut), and vegetable dumplings in almond-cashew sauce. Mexican and southwestern menus, known for rich caloric choices, have the advantage of rice, beans, peppers and salsa staples to liven up burritos, tacos and wraps while skipping the meat and dairy.


At Sweetgreen, a popular U.S. healthy-slant food outlet, vegan dishes are peppered among the animal protein menu. Warm Bowls include some chicken and seafood choices but also a Shroomami boasting an interesting play of textures and flavors: raw beets, roasted sesame tofu, grilled portobellos, raw vegetables, spicy sesame seeds and sesame-ginger miso vinaigrette.

Registered dietician and restaurant owner Stephanie Hoban of Verdine restaurant, Houston’s newest vegan eatery, cleverly prepares American comfort food favorites vegan-style. Dishes that transpose to large quantities include tempura-battered cauliflower with zesty orange sauce; creamy tomato soup with mini grilled cheese sandwiches, and mac and cheese with white “cheddar” sauce and “Parmesan” breadcrumbs. “Everyone loves cheese—the fat, the salt, the funk—so we make our own cashew chevre and almond mozzarella,” said Hoban. She also uses VioLife brand for Parmesan and sliced cheddar.


“For our menu, I rely heavily on organic quinoa, gluten-free tamari, vegetable broth, tempeh, maple syrup, chickpea and brown rice flour,” said Hoban. She makes a decadent (and beautiful) German Chocolate Cake that tastes almost like the real thing.

“We’re at the tipping point with consumers demanding plant-based foods and the industry is willingly responding with delicious options. This is no longer about a niche customer—it’s a major business opportunity,” adds Panera Bread Vice President, Wellness and Food Policy Sara Burnett.