Promoting Veggies to Center of the Plate

Most Americans today embrace some kind of diet philosophy, like gluten-free or vegetarian. With the trend moving away from crash diets and toward intentional eating, consumers focus on how their dining choices affect their own health as well as that of the planet. Eating natural, minimally processed foods from local sources supports increased well-being of both, and dishes made with fresh produce is one way to do that.

A Natural Union

Virtually any protein can augment creative mixtures of vegetable flavors and textures. But one that’s able to satisfy both vegetarians and meat-eaters alike with its protein, flavor and versatility is the incredible egg. Eggs are:

  • Like fresh produce, unadulterated and unprocessed
  • A popular vegetarian protein that’s also nutrient-dense
  • Providers of a silky and indulgent flavor and mouthfeel
  • A versatile partner – acting as a carrier, topping, co-star or sauce

The fact that eggs come in their own nature-provided packaging for freshness and purity is just another bonus.

Breakfast Food for Thought

Popular veggie-centric Mexican-influenced breakfasts have already infiltrated American consumers’ habits across operator segments. Classic Huevos Rancheros is made of tortillas, tomatoes, onions, jalapenos and beans topped with eggs. Breakfast burritos and tacos commonly are made with the same ingredients arranged differently. (Morning burritos have been served via drive-thrus at chains including McDonald’s, Burger King and Sonic for decades.) Chilaquiles and Huevos Divorciados are found on more and more menus.

No less an expert than Rick Bayless of Chicago’s award winning Topolobampo had this to say at the 2017 National Restaurant Association show: “European food is all based – flavor wise – on how to get the most meat flavor into everything on the plate...Mexican cuisine is a vegetable-based cuisine.”

Consumer interest

Chain Reactions

Chains respond to this trend with their own veggie menu changes and tests. Houlihan’s recently launched spiralized veggie “noodles” and offer Spiralized Beet Chips and French Fried Asparagus as appetizers. Sonic Drive-In is the first national QSR chain to test a “blended burger,” made with 25-30 percent mushrooms. And Pret A Manger just introduced 20 more veggie options and the U.S. test of a Veggie Pret concept, based on vegetarian dishes having “been a particular success for us in the last year.

Operator Creativity

Creative menuing offers an experience that generates buzz about the flavor first, and the vegetables second.

  • The Breakfast Salad served at Hugo’s Restaurants in the L.A. area includes turmeric rice scrambled with egg whites, almonds, currants, spinach, mixed mushrooms, ginger, garlic and organic tamari sauce on mixed lettuce with balsamic vinaigrette.
  • Not Your Average Joe’s Ramen comes with seared pork belly in broth with ramen noodles, poached egg, shitake mushrooms, cilantro, scallions and bok choy, from New England through Virginia.
  • Chicago’s Handlebar serves its Pepita Scramble made from eggs with sweet potatoes, red peppers, kale, poblanos, pumpkin seed pesto, crispy onions and breakfast potatoes.
  • Tuna conserva, mixed greens, soft boiled eggs, asparagus, snap peas, spring onion, croutons and lemon vinaigrette is on the menu at Pausa in San Mateo.
  • NYC’s The Breslin offers Poached Egg with Asparagus, Fiddlehead Ferns, Peas & Crushed Potatoes.
  • Spring Vegetable Baked Bomba Rice adds foraged mushrooms, grilled baby squash, farm egg and pimenton aioli at Arroz in Washington, D.C.

Approaching the Menu

There are sound business reasons for moving veggie dishes to the COP.

  • Veggie seasonality is a natural reason for refreshing menus to reflect the freshest produce.
  • In-season veggies are at their peak of abundance, making them cheaper and more profitable.
  • Veggie entrees are not just for vegetarians – meat eaters like veggies too.
  • Veggie dishes project an image of a sustainable and locally sourced menu.

Nothing about veggie-centric says meat should not be involved, but it acts as a supporting character, not a star. Including eggs in the list of protein options to top veggie entrees, salads or sandwiches is an easy way to keep every guest happy, whether vegetarian or carnivore.

The Final Say

A veggie-forward approach is not about leaving something out, but rather, adding more flavor, options and creativity, giving consumers something they’ll want to talk about. Brooks Headley, chef-owner of New York City’s Superiority Burger, a vegetarian restaurant, has said, “In the end, we’re just doing our best to make really delicious, very accessible food that anyone can have.”

Veggies take center stage

Veggies are the darlings of the menu today, whether talking about plant “butchery,” one-bowl meals or ethnic creations becoming new favorites. Breakfast menus, already full of veggie-heavy items with omelets, skillets, scrambles and frittatas, offer room for even more plant-based presence. Eggs and veggies have always been friends, having served well together on sandwiches, salads and pizza, as well as in quiche, bibimbap and shakshuka. Technomic research also found that eggs are an attractive protein substitute for other proteins, as two-thirds of consumers would consider ordering them for that purpose.*

Back to the Beginning

For hundreds of years serving meat was a sign of social standing, as members of the upper class were the only ones who regularly could afford it. But in twentieth century America concepts like “a chicken in every pot” and unpretentious people being described as “meat-and-potatoes” showed meat was no longer exclusive, but the norm.

Fastest Growing Animal Protein

A legacy from those earlier centuries, protein has been considered the rightful center-of-the-plate (COP) occupant while veggies were thought to belong in a salad bowl or a secondary plated position. But changes are afoot in the American culinary landscape and vegetables are enjoying a new-found popularity. The current direction of menus favors veggies migrating to the center of our plates.

Key Drivers

There are a number of unconnected factors encouraging this trend:

  • The popularity of farmers’ markets has introduced consumers to super-fresh and often unfamiliar vegetables.
  • Global cuisines continue their inroads into our habits and awareness; often veggie-heavy, they are embraced by adventurous diners.
  • Millennials, now the largest demographic group, tend to seek out and champion new culinary experiences.
  • More chefs are finding creative outlets playing with the variety of flavors, textures and unexpected veggie combinations.
  • The growth in intentional dining makes fresh, sustainable, unprocessed and nutrient dense food increasingly attractive.

The Purveyors

Vegetarian restaurants certainly are enjoying plant-based popularity, but there are plenty of non-vegetarian operations taking advantage of plant-based ingredients as well. One national chain that blends veggie-forward menuing with a variety of proteins is True Food Kitchen. Its Garden Scramble is made with organic eggs, asparagus, broccolini, caramelized onion, roasted bell pepper and sweet potato. But the menu also includes albacore, beef, turkey and chicken paired with ingredients like Persian cucumbers, pole beans, olives, medjool dates, ginger, raisins and almonds.

Food manufacturers are likewise onboard with veggie-forward ingredients and meals. Del Monte’s Vegetable Noodles line includes six versions of refrigerated veggie-based noodles just waiting to be finished with spices and a poached egg. MorningStar Farms’ Veggie Bowls come with names like Thai Yellow Curry and Tuscan Greens & Beans that cry out for the addition of a soft-boiled egg or two.

The types of operations menuing combinations of eggs with multiple veggies show egg protein is a draw across all segments:

  • The Huckleberry Café in Santa Monica menus great examples, one being Organic Quinoa & Market Vegetables with Eggs, adding caramelized onion and chimichurri.
  • Braum’s Ice Cream and Dairy Stores in Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma serve a Vegetarian Bagel Omelette sandwich that mixes fresh eggs, tomatoes, onions, green peppers, mushrooms and shredded cheese.
  • The Bánh Mì at Chicago’s Ground Control is a symphony of ginger soy tofu, lentil pate, pickled daikon and carrot, cucumber, jalapeno, fresh mint, cilantro and sriracha garlic mayo topped with a fried egg.
  • In Illinois/Texas/Pennsylvania, Snap Kitchen’s Spinach Goat Cheese Scramble includes sweet potatoes, grape tomatoes, onion and spinach with scrambled egg whites.

It’s Time

As veggie-based dishes proliferate and find a home on the COP at both restaurants and homes, the addition of eggs ups the protein quotient and creates a more robust flavor profile and mouthfeel. With a full 50 percent of those surveyed* telling Technomic they want restaurants to offer a wider variety of vegetarian entrees, the time is right for elegant egg and veggie matchmaking.

* © 2017 Technomic Inc.