Casual Dining Chains Expand Vegetarian Options

Vegetarian options are gaining prominence on menus at casual dining chains, according to a recent report in Nation's Restaurant News, a sister publication of SN. We are seeing people choose one day a week to be a or to try options other than a meat protein, Paul Damico, president of Moe's Southwest Grill, told NRN. The 428-unit, Atlanta-based chain recently changed its menu boards to highlight vegetarian,

Vegetarian options are gaining prominence on menus at casual dining chains, according to a recent report in Nation's Restaurant News, a sister publication of SN.

“We are seeing people choose one day a week to be a ‘flexitarian,’ or to try options other than a meat protein,” Paul Damico, president of Moe's Southwest Grill, told NRN. The 428-unit, Atlanta-based chain recently changed its menu boards to highlight vegetarian, low-calorie and gluten-free menu items, such as its new rice bowl with seasoned rice, black beans, marinated tofu, grilled mushrooms and onions, pico de gallo, shredded cheese, cucumber and black olives.

Similarly, Hard Rock Café has introduced an expanded variety of vegetarian options on its new spring menu, the NRN report notes. These meatless, or “meatless-adaptable” items include balsamic tomato bruschetta, a new Greek salad, a grilled veggie sandwich and the “Veggie Leggie,” a grilled veggie patty topped with grilled portobello mushroom, zucchini, yellow squash and roasted red pepper with lemon mayo, leaf lettuce, sliced tomato and grilled sweet onions.

“The brand is offering a lighter-fare alternative to guests who may not be enticed by our classic ‘Legendary’ burger options,” said Kristen Hauser, a Hard Rock representative.

The report also notes that Stonefire Grill, an independent with seven locations in Southern California, recently introduced a “Healthy Alternatives Menu” that includes items like a cheeseless grilled veggie pizza and grilled vegetables with feta cheese.

In addition, a separate NRN report in March notes that Sodexo, one of the largest onsite foodservice companies in the world, recently launched “Meatless Mondays” for the universities, hospitals corporations, government facilities, schools and other facilities it serves.

“It's not just about taking care of those who eat meatless everyday, but also those who have never considered meatless,” David Willard, national executive chef for Sodexo Health Care Services, told NRN. “It's the culinary invitation to them to try it. Bring them over to give it a whirl. We wanted to have items that are great food, taste great, but by the way, just happen to be meatless. That's a good formula for healthy fare, too.”

Willard added that meatless menus do pose some challenges. For example, there has to be more awareness of seasonality built into the menu. Buying in-season ensures that a facility can obtain fresh produce at the best prices. And, making meatless items appealing to a broad audience can be difficult when vegetarian options are exclusively focused on health.

Limiting salt and fat limits flavor, Willard notes, suggesting whole grains and toasted spices to compensate when creating better-for-you items. Sodexo has also created indulgent vegetarian options as well, such as a General Tso's dish that substitutes breaded cauliflower for the more traditional breaded chicken.

“Most [of our meatless] items tend to be more healthy, but some are more indulgent to bring people over,” Willard told NRN.

For prepared food departments considering the addition of produce-based menu items, flavor, as always, is a priority. And, naming the item should be an important consideration. In a recent report, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service cited research indicating that consumers lower their expectations for flavor when they see terms like “low-fat” on menus.

Not surprisingly, separate research from ERS indicates that most consumers — including people who are on a diet — tend to indulge when eating away from home.