The popularization of plant-based cuisine in the mainstream consciousness of North American diets has been growing steadily over the past few years, as chefs and consumers alike have turned their attention to the virtues of going green.
In recent months, high profile restaurateurs such as Daniel Humm at New York’s Eleven Madison Park announced their shift to a plant-focused dining room, causing a stir perhaps unseen since Alain Ducasse took one of his restaurants, Plaza Athenée, towards a not-totally-vegetarian concept of “naturalness” and Alain Passard launched L’Arpège as a meat-free manifesto that eventually changed course. “The decision, in retrospect, felt like a resurrection of the light, bright nouvelle cuisine French chefs espoused in the 1960s—but it was also a volte-face from the restaurant’s own heritage as a three-Michelin-starred rôtisserie, a bastion of bloody, slow-cooked meats,” wrote Eater’s Ryan Sutton. “This was the equivalent of Masa Takayama declaring that he’d no longer make sushi, and would be selling the world’s most expensive grain bowls instead.”
This shift is hardly new — plant based dining has formed the basis for many cuisines around the globe for centuries. Restaurants such as Amanda Cohen’s Dirt Candy, Dominique Crenn’s Atelier Crenn, Rich Landau and Kate Jacoby’s Vedge in Philadelphia and countless others have brought vegetarian and vegan cuisine to the forefront in high end dining.
One sector where there is a notable change in terms of focus and purchasing, however, is the retail segment of foodservice. Grocery store offerings for plant-based items have grown exponentially over the past few years, and consumers are responding with hungry enthusiasm.
According to Instacart’s Plant Power Report released this week, one in three of the grocery delivery company’s customers ordered a plant-based meat or milk product in the past year, and customers are increasingly searching for these items when ordering. “Plant-based food has grown from a niche category into a grocery staple over the past two years,” Laurentia Romaniuk, Instacart’s trends expert and senior product manager, said in a release. “Searches for terms like ‘plant-based,’ ‘meatless,’ vegetarian,’ and especially ‘vegan’ took off on Instacart as consumers looked for healthy at-home meals during 2020 lockdowns. And this trend is turning into a long-term lifestyle — search popularity has been growing even more in 2021.”
A sure sign of the plant-based product’s zeitgeist is Whole Food’s first trend list, also released this week, centered only around these types of grocery items (although one could argue that the concept is already a natural fit into the chain’s raison d’être of natural and organic).
“Plant-based is the grocery category to watch right now as brands continue to innovate by using new ingredients and processes that make plant-based products exciting for shoppers,” said Parker Brody, senior global category merchant for plant-based at Whole Foods Market. The trend report pointed towards creating creamy dairy-free alternatives with traditional cheese making techniques and using legume and banana blossoms to create vegan fish sticks and other seafood substitutes. Other trends focused on components to traditionally meat-based products, such as substituting an algae-based casing for an animal derived casing on a vegan sausage.
It remains to be seen whether the consumer’s pursuit of plant-based dining continues in future years as we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic with changed attitudes towards dining, consumption and grocery retail, but it’s clear that the steady growth of these products is anything but impossible.