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Operators' Corner: Pizza and Vegans, Unite!

PizzaVegan.com editor Tracy Morin discusses the growth of the vegan movement—and how pizzeria operators can better serve this loyal group of consumers.

Posted on November 26, 2020

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Photo provided by Amici's East Coast Pizzeria

Before the launch of PizzaVegan.com, the new website from the minds behind PMQ Pizza Magazine, PMQ publisher Steve Green hosted a Marketing Masters session on Facebook Live with Tracy Morin. As senior copy editor of the magazine since 2007 and editor of PizzaVegan.com, Morin shared information about the growing vegan community, and how pizzerias can better serve (and connect with) this demographic. Here, we review key points of the discussion, plus additional bonus info for operators!

Behind the Vegan and Plant-Based Movements

PMQ has been keeping tabs on the vegan movement for years, but recently the trend has been picking up significant steam. Back in the April 2018 issue, in an article on protein alternatives from soy and mushrooms to jackfruit, execs at chain operations like Dallas-based Boston’s Pizza Restaurant & Sports Bar noted a major “paradigm shift” in consumers’ eating habits, toward alternative (non-animal-based) protein sources.

What’s behind the trend? Several factors have brought the vegan movement to the forefront: First, consumers are more aware than ever about the link between what we eat and the health of ourselves and the planet. In 2019, the Plant Based Foods Association noted that plant-based food sales increased by 31% over the last two years. Today, we see meat alternatives populating the menus at fast-food giants like Burger King; even McDonald’s is hopping on the plant-based burger wagon for 2021. That’s officially mainstream!

In PMQ’s meat alternatives story in the April 2020 issue, Daniel Levine, a trends expert for The Avant-Guide Institute in New York, noted that plant-based options are the fastest growing sections on pizza menus, and an overall trend in the restaurant industry as a whole (meaning that if you aren’t serving these consumers, someone else is!). Of course, the term “plant-based” offers a more inclusive connotation than the terms “vegetarian” or “vegan,” and is thus gaining consumer acceptance as a more mainstream option. In addition, according to ADM in Chicago, 44% of U.S. consumers now identify as “flexitarian,” which describes a mostly vegetarian diet with occasional meat eating.

Another major factor has been the amazing strides made in vegan product development: better flavor, cleaner labeling, improved technology and sustainable ingredient sourcing, all of which translate to more (and more appealing) products on the market than ever to meet vegans’ needs. Whether they’re carnivores or hardcore vegans, consumers now expect more from their plant-based foods and beverages, and they are now less apt to feel as if they are sacrificing or missing out when forgoing traditional animal-based products.

Finally, in 2020, it was impossible to ignore the impact of COVID-19 on consumers’ eating habits. In the September 9, 2020, edition of PMQ’s This Week in Pizza, a story reported that a whopping 60% of Americans started eating a more plant-based diet since the onset of the pandemic. In the poll of 2,000 adults, conducted by the market research firm OnePoll and the food company Eat Just, respondents cited health as the No. 1 reason for the switch, followed by the desire to eat less animal products and to lead a more sustainable lifestyle.

COVID-19 itself has origins in animal-to-human transmission, but its spread worldwide also led to outbreaks in key meat-industry hot spots, which in turn led to interruptions in the meat supply chain and shortages of key ingredients like pepperoni. With COVID, there has also been a rise in related concerns surrounding protection of one’s personal health and the health of the planet (i.e, climate change).

How Can Pizzerias Better Serve Vegans?

Vegan consumers have much in common with gluten-free consumers—not necessarily in a dietary sense, but in their enthusiasm for embracing businesses that make them a priority. When you serve vegans thoughtfully (not as an afterthought), they will support you, pay more for their meals, and spread the word to their friends and the vegan community. Here are some ways in which you can make your pizzeria more vegan-friendly:

  • At minimum, stock a vegan cheese, and try out different varieties. Look for new cheeses that arrive on the market, because this category is exploding, with new options being introduced constantly. You may trust your taste buds when picking the best varieties, but you can also ask vegan customers, friends, relatives or employees for input. And, of course, you can use this same approach when it comes to protein alternatives.
  • Add a vegan pie to your menu—one that is not what every other pizzeria is serving. When operators don’t take the same amount of care with their vegan specialty items as they would with their meat-based pies, it shows—and vegans are likely to be less than thrilled to return.
  • If your demographics support it, try to offer at least one item that’s vegan-friendly on all main menu parts (for example, an appetizer, a pizza and a dessert). Creative entrees are great, too. In general, add something that vegans are less likely to make at home—something that’s worth dining out for. Think outside the pasta primavera!
  • Beware of cross-contamination. Remember those gluten-free customers? Treat vegans similarly when it comes to cross-contamination, and avoid preparing vegan items in areas (or with utensils) that have been exposed to animal products. For those who are vegan (or even just vegetarian) for ethical reasons, seeing meat come into contact with their food is a huge turnoff—and possibly a reason to walk straight out the door. In 2019, one vegan consumer even sued Burger King after employees prepped his plant-based burger on a meat-laden grill. And, when you do follow careful steps to avoid cross-contamination, communicate your efforts with customers; they’ll feel much safer eating at your establishment and will likely show their appreciation by returning often.
  • On your menu, establish clear symbols for vegan and vegetarian items. You can consider symbols for plant-based, too, if your customers are interested in those choices. Or make a separate section of the menu (or a separate menu) for your vegetarian/vegan items. Paulie Gee, owner of Paulie Gee’s and Paulie Gee’s Slice Shop in Brooklyn, New York, learned this from experience: Making a separate menu for vegans was the simple change that made his vegan sales soar.
  • Watch for hidden ingredients. Do your research to understand what items are not okay for vegans to consume, and read labels carefully for common culprits. Or enlist the help of a vegan for insider info on their dietary needs and desires. They can even help you with menu development!
  • If there’s a solid demand for vegan options in your area, try making your own in-house specialties that are vegan-friendly. Denver-based Hops & Pie rakes in 20% of its food sales through vegan items and created a delicious Vegan Ranch that customers love (see the recipe here). Meanwhile, Paulie Gee switched from storebought alternative-sausage to in-house seitan sausage, and makes his own cashew ricotta, to serve his many vegan customers.
  • Play around with your menu. Take a meat-based best seller and make it vegan. Approach new specialty pies as you would any other, aiming for the right combination of fun flavors, colors and textures. Vegan customers may not eat meat, but they still want a hearty, filling, satisfying and tasty meal!

Reaching the Vegan Community

Try these methods for reaching and communicating with vegan customers in your area:

  • Share drool-worthy food pics on social media. Diana Edelman, creator of Las Vegas-based Vegans, Baby, notes that vegans are apt to share the food they eat, and a ton of vegan Facebook groups are out there to connect with and to post within. Also, share your images and info on Instagram with the proper hashtags to get you in front of vegan consumers (see PizzaVegan.com’s full Q&A with Edelman here).
  • Invite vegan customers or influencers into your pizzeria for taste tests before and/or after adding a new vegan menu item. If you don’t know of any, find them in your community via like-minded businesses, such as yoga studios or health food stores.
  • Partner with the vegan-friendly brands you carry to obtain new recipes, host promotions or brainstorm on marketing strategies.
  • Attend events that focus on health or the environment in your area. Offer samples to attendees. Or simply offer samples inside your pizzeria. Ingredients like meat and cheese alternatives can be very personal; sometimes, the only way for a vegan or vegetarian consumer to feel confident in the purchase is to try before buying. Of course, that makes it even more important to source great tasting products!
  • Try this tip from a representative from Burke Corporation: Host a “Can You Taste the Difference?” event with plant-based meat and/or cheese alternatives, and promote these plant-based options throughout the year via table tents, menu inserts and in-store signage.
  • Call out your vegan options on your website. Share your own story of embracing vegan eating with fans via newsletters or videos—and share the stories of the brands you work with. Often, companies that manufacture vegan-friendly products have interesting origins and/or founders with whom customers can connect.

Ultimately, with plant-based, vegan and vegetarian foods gaining in popularity within every category of foodservice, even pizzerias that are just starting out with catering to these customers have a built-in advantage. Major chains are already out there doing a lot of the work to make these alternatives more mainstream and to transform vegan-friendly brands into household names. Take advantage of the movement to bolster your own sales!

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