Demand for plant-based foods is growing, and food service settings like restaurants, school and hospital cafeterias, and corporate catering all play a key role in helping plant-based food brands meet hungry consumers where they are. This growing opportunity for plant-based companies has inspired many brands to turn their focus toward this fast-growing space, and here at PBFA, we’re committed to making sure our members are best equipped for success in the unique world of food service.

As part of this commitment, we’ve invested in a robust partnership with Datassential designed to identify key trends and predicted growth for plant-based menu items. Recently, Hannah Lopez, PBFA’s Director of Marketplace Development, Food Service, hosted an exclusive member webinar featuring Marie Molde, Trends Analyst and Registered Dietitian at Datassential, to share key findings from the PBFA and Datassential collaborative “State of Plant-Based in Food Service” report. Findings from this report serve as the baseline for understanding how plant-based foods are performing across food service menus, leveraging cutting-edge consumer insights, and building data-driven context to inform the potential for future plant-based growth. 

Opportunities for plant-based options in restaurants are growing

The performance of plant-based foods in retail and food service settings has been the source of much media speculation lately; findings from this new report, however, paint a holistic story that points toward sustained and continuous growth. Plant-based foods are now found in 48% of restaurants across the U.S., and this number has grown steadily–without decline–over the past decade. The staying power of plant-based is also clear as the popularity of these items allowed them to continuously gain ground on menus, even when most restaurants reduced the size of their menus during COVID and its aftermath. 

“This new information is only the beginning of a very strong case that shows the steadfast growth of plant-based foods on today’s menu,” said Hannah Lopez. “Not only are new plant-based items being introduced across the country, but they are also staying on those menus because of sustained consumer interest. By tracking plant-based menu trends, and deepening our understanding of what consumers want, we can inspire data-driven action for not only plant-based companies but also food service operators across the U.S.

Top performing menu items

The report also digs deeper into category performance of plant-based foods, illuminating a few key trends around product offerings and growing segments. While burgers have taken the spotlight as staple plant-based entrées for the past few years, we are now seeing the rise of more comfort foods and new bar classics like burgers, wings, mac and cheese, and grilled cheese sandwiches. 

Plant-based burgers remain a crowd favorite but plant-based meat variety is growing

Plant-based meats are one of the hottest items of focus for food service operators, in alignment with the flexitarian market and consumer desire to reduce overall meat intake. 

The familiarity and success of veggie burgers has paved the way for the growth of innovative plant-based meat options. While veggie burger penetration dipped during the COVID-19 pandemic, plant-based burgers showed continued growth. Plant-based meat burgers are expected to double their penetration in the next four years, surpassing veggie burgers by 2025. 

Over the past year, more plant-based meat varieties–like plant-based seafood, crumbles, chicken, and hot dogs–took off, many of which outpaced burgers and sausages. Plant-based burgers and sausage menu penetration grew by around 20% in the past year, but have tended to gain less traction as they have become more common on menus. Overall, plant-based meats have the strongest presence at fast casual, but midscale and casual dining are not far behind. 

With new innovations and options building momentum on menus, 60% of operators now say plant-based meat is a long-term trend–and four times as many food service operators plan to add more plant-based meat options to their menus in 2023, rather than reduce them. New variety and creativity with introducing plant-based meats to menus has proven to be a successful method of engaging consumers.

Plant-based dairy as a pathway for opportunity

Plant-based dairy is one of the fastest-growing retail segments, and the growth of plant-based dairy options on food service menus is remarkable to say the least. 

Plant-based dairy is being incorporated into entrées and appetizers, and is playing a starring role in creamy sauces. The presence of plant-based dairy menu items has exploded across all food service segments, especially in fast casual settings that prioritize health-forward offerings. Midscale restaurants closely follow many global operators in the segment, incorporating plant-based dairy in savory menu offerings such as coconut milk-based curries–particularly on Thai and Indian menus–or soups. Oat milk is a new category standout, growing from virtually no menu penetration four years ago to over 400% growth today.

Plant-based milks are a common item on food service beverage menus, often featured alongside coffee or other warm drinks. Almond milk is the top-offered alternative milk, while oat, soy, and coconut continue to grow. It is important to note, however, despite strong consumer affinity for milk alternatives and one-third of consumers preferring them to traditional dairy, menu presence of milk alternatives is still lacking, which may create an opportunity area for operators to address this unmet demand.

There has also been exciting growth in plant-based cheese options on menus in recent years: American and cheddar-style plant-based cheeses have seen significant menu growth, but less traditional options such as ricotta, cream cheese, and mozzarella are gaining traction. Given the proliferation of cheese and dairy offerings in food service, this particular segment represents an enormous opportunity for future growth.

Plant-based options help food service operators stand out

Meeting–and exceeding–customers’ expectations for plant-based options can help food service operators build loyalty and stimulate repeat patronage, and introducing new plant-based menu items as part of a limited-time offer is one key strategy that food service operators can leverage for success.

According to the report, trend-forward, fast casual food service operators are most likely to offer plant-based options on their menus and limited-time introductions, and doing so creates opportunities for them to increase their uniqueness ratings amongst consumers and encourage the trial of new and innovative plant-based foods. Further, limited-time offers prove to provide a high level of consumer engagement. 

“Plant-based foods are clearly the arm of innovation for many food service operators,” said PBFA’s Hannah Lopez. “Collaborating with brands to introduce exciting and delicious new offerings presents a key opportunity to not only try new menu items, but to implement them in the overall brand strategy of a food service establishment.”

Creating pathways informed by data

Food service remains one of the top marketplace growth areas for the plant-based foods industry and providing the latest, most impactful insights and data is a key pillar of PBFA’s work. Our partnership with Datassential is built on providing meaningful thought leadership for the entire industry, and together, we will publish a series of reports throughout the year exclusively for our members aimed at helping to build their food service footprint. 

Inspiring action with a data-driven approach is the foundation of our work and we strive to elevate the industry as a whole through the curation of strong data and research studies. The PBFA team will leverage key relationships within the food service industry to create unique opportunities for its members, affiliates, and ingredient suppliers and will position itself as thought leaders within the food service industry and pave the way for change. 

To learn more about upcoming opportunities, be sure to keep an eye out for events in the PBFA member portal. 

Want more insights?

Click to access the “State of Plant-Based in Food Service” report presentation. Members can view the recording of the Datassential webinar and exclusive additional insights (not currently available to the public) by clicking here

Not a member but interested in learning more about joining PBFA? Click here

“Plant-based foods are showing up on menus across the country and are staying on those menus. With the exploration of going beyond the plant-based burger into other facets of food is not only exciting to see but is what the consumer is looking for.”