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Seeding the New Diner

Seeding the New Diner

Capitalizing on the “Flexitarian Diner” at Your Restaurant

Those seven words, written by Pollan in his 2007 groundbreaking “Unhappy Meals” essay, may have kick-started a revolution that had been budding for years. A decade later, plant-based eating has transcended fad status and is on course to redefining what eating well means, especially when dining out. For restaurant operators, it represents an unprecedented opportunity to win over a wide swath of generations, and ensures they’ll want a seat at your table well into the future.

Call it the age of the flexitarian: a 30-something who considers herself a vegetarian most days but eagerly devours grandma’s meatballs; a young professional who avoids red meat, but is always game to try a new poke tuna bowl; a retiree who’s cut back on steak, but has a newfound taste for mushroom burgers.

“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
– Michael Pollan, award-winning author/activist, New York Times Magazine

The focus on what’s been coined “vegetable-forward” eating is a shift that spans Gen Z through Boomers and ties in with a number of important dynamics – health, weight management, energy, digestion, animal rights, food supply, the environment, religious and social reasons. That's according to Steve Walton, whose company HealthFocus has conducted extensive research on the topic.

“The main drivers are consumer recognition of the importance and quality of protein, and of ‘clean eating,’ which shape a person’s identity. These are people who place great value on the idea that what they put in their bodies impacts not just their diet but the environment,” explains Walton.

What it’s not about, he emphasizes, is hating meat. “Very few diners reject meat entirely; it’s more about developing a taste and palate for plant-based foods,” he says.

“Offering plant-based foods is a way to target the Millennial diner, absolutely, but it needn’t be restricted to just that generation. The preference for eating this kind of food is seen across broad demographic groups and provides a path for many older brands and restaurants to make themselves relevant.”
– Steve Walton, HealthFocus

Therein lies the value proposition steadily gaining traction for restaurant operators. To succeed, however, requires a thoughtful strategy that goes well beyond the menu, says Walton.

“Simply offering a salad isn’t enough. It requires a deep understanding of who you are, what you stand for and then offering a ‘better for you’ item in that context.”

The rewards of getting it right are substantial, Walton believes.

“There’s a real opportunity here to appeal to millennials, but it’s not restricted to just that generation. Our research shows that 60 percent of all consumers say they are cutting back on meat, and all evidence suggests the move to a more plant-focused diet is a long-term lifestyle decision that continues to grow over time…there is little movement back once one starts on that path,” says Walton.

That’s exactly why operators don’t want to literally leave money on the table, and with big food coming on board, choices are rapidly proliferating. Alison Rabschnuk, whose work at the non-profit Good Food Institute (GFI) focuses on increasing the availability of plant-based products, points to a number of watershed moments in the two short years since GFI was established.

Restaurants have sprouted up nationwide, among them well-known chains such as Umami Burger, sweetgreen and Pret a Manger. Last fall’s test of Beyond Meats burger at TGI Fridays’ hundreds of locations proved to be the “quickest test to market they’ve ever done,” reports Rabschnuk.

The flexitarian diner provides a perfect opening for all types of restaurants, and Rabschnuk offers some smart marketing tips:

  • Don’t segregate your meat-free offerings. “Sales spike significantly when these dishes are integrated into the menu.”
  • Indulgent language sells. What would you rather order: ‘sweet sizzlin’ green beans and crispy shallots’ or ‘light and low carb green beans and shallots?’ Exactly what your customers think too.
  • Avoid using “vegan” and “vegetarian” descriptors. “There’s a lot of negative baggage associated with these words.”

Most important, remember to give people what they crave most about meat: protein and taste. “There’s no reason for a dish to be bland because it’s plant based,” says Rabschnuk.

Worth Cultivating

Plant-based foods named the #1 trend for 2018.
-Baum & Whiteman

The market for plant-based food products grew eight percent in 2017, while meat declined two percent.

Sixty percent of consumers report they are cutting back on meat consumption.

Sixty-eight percent of consumers are actively reducing meat consumption are doing that both at home and away from home.

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