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Preparing for Plant-Based Proteins

It’s not just a trend – Plant-based or alternative proteins are our present and future. Is your kitchen equipped for the new wave of products consumers are eating up by the billions?

On the Rise

In a survey conducted on NielsenIQ 7/31/21, more than half (52%) of U.S consumers are eating more plant-based foods and they believe it makes them feel healthier. (NielsenIQ) During the first half of 2021, online searches for “plant-based” increased 17% on Amazon, and 50% on Instacart. The main reason: to eat healthier. A close second: environmental concerns, as animal protein production practices present various harmful effects and challenges. These were exacerbated by the Coronavirus pandemic as Covid-19 plagued meat packing facilities across the country.

In response, alternative meat innovators went into overdrive, and we saw a 27% sales growth in 2020, bringing the total plant-based market value to $7 billion! (gfi.org)  Products range from raw to frozen; meat, cheese, milk, and even bacon made of coconut have risen from the demand for protein from unconventional sources. Some innovators utilize intricate production facilities to manufacture more highly processed products while others tout humbler natural and locally sourced ingredients.

It’s All About the Prep

No matter what plant-based product you choose to offer at your establishment, it all comes down to preparation. As with any dish, consumers eat with their eyes first. The last thing they want to see is a bland, grey-ish patty on their plate when their colleague is about to dig into a hot, juicy burger. The biggest problem with many plant-based alternatives can be the unpleasant (different) consistency. This can happen by failing to cook to the instructions provided or trying to cook as you would its animal protein counterpart. However, since these plant-based proteins are often highly processed, they will not automatically behave like meat.

Equipment Matters

Here is where efficient kitchen design and equipment come in to play.  Pre-cooking plant-based proteins is the first step to a more appealing product.  One of the main reasons vegetarian-alternative interest is on the rise is that it is a health-conscious option, with the benefit that many alternatives are made to mimic real meat and can be prepared to look like their counterparts.  Pre-cooking allows the operator to use marinades to increase the flavor of the product and add grill marks to create curb appeal.

But adding the equipment and operations necessary to pre-cook these new proteins can create a dilemma especially if there is limited space or budget.  It is crucial to evaluate the proteins you plan to prepare and determine which pieces of equipment will allow you to implement your new offerings most efficiently.

Some key pieces of equipment might be combi ovens, holding cabinets, and air fryers, although it is best to consult with a foodservice design consultant who can tailor your kitchen to your specific needs.  Combi ovens paired with hot holding cabinets can achieve the desired result easily without drying out the product.  Hot holding solutions, when used per the manufacturer’s instructions and typically for no more than 2 hours, are important to maintaining ideal safe food temperatures and retaining crispiness and desired textures.  Also, the combi can be used to cook other proteins simultaneously, allowing for multiple food products to be cooked at the same time with several programs that can be saved; the versatility of these units simplifies operations and reduces labor and associated costs.

Plant-based nuggets have become increasingly popular; however, they typically are still cooked in the same fryer as the meat nuggets, which can be an issue if you expect your vegan/vegetarian clientele to eat them.   Since most operations do not have the capacity to increase frying operations by installing an additional fryer, air frying has become a potential solution…it is relatively easy to add an air fryer to an existing kitchen and it is a healthier cooking technique. Consistent, even, vertical airflow from the top and bottom allows you to achieve a perfect, crispy finish, delivering a healthier product to your customers while also eliminating the additional associated labor and operating costs from bulk oil and oil disposal, both of which can be a costly operational expense.  As a bonus, this equipment is highly programmable, allowing you to develop recipes specific to the size, shape, and texture of your food product, as well as for consistency and ease of use for your employees; and highly customizable so they can stack in varying configurations depending on the size of your operation.

The New Wave is Here!

While there is a still a market for niche operations catering to vegan-only offerings, the growing popularity in the “weekly vegetarian” is increasing the demand for alternative protein options at your traditional fast-food chains, food halls, catering operations, etc.  As sales continue to increase, more establishments across the country are offering unique plant-based alternatives on their menu, resulting in growing profits. As more products come to market, more consumers will want to see them in restaurants, grocery stores, and anywhere they purchase food. No matter what plant-based protein you choose to incorporate into your foodservice operation, preparation is key. The new wave is already here. Be prepared!

By:  Theresa Chadwick | Project Designer, San Francisco

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