If you look at the entrée section of most restaurant menus, protein is going to be the star of the show. And with good reason—a lot of incredible dishes start with a great cut of meat. As a foodservice distributor with decades of experience, we work with some of the best food producers in the country and have developed expertise in Ontario beef, poultry, lamb, pork products and more. We love meat—but we also know there’s opportunity to create exceptional meals without it.
In our opinion, the best independent restaurants in Ontario and around the world deliver both: incredible meat-based dishes as well as vegetarian options (even better when they can be adapted to become vegan or dairy-free). And, there are benefits to offering this type of variety on your menu—let’s look at three ways adding meatless dishes to your menu can attract customers, create interest, and improve your bottom line.
1. Offer something unique and interesting
It’s common to see a veggie burger on a restaurant menu, but your meatless options shouldn’t stop there—and, they shouldn’t appeal only to vegetarians. When a meatless meal is delicious and exciting, it appeals to everyone who walks through your door. You don’t need to rely on frozen convenience products or meat replacements—instead, consider adding a variety of vegetarian appetizers and entrées that have been developed and prepared in-house by your chef.
There’s so much room for restaurants to explore unique food preparations using mushrooms, eggplant, firm cheeses and tofu, jackfruit, legumes, grains and grain flours. Incorporate flavours and techniques from around the world—for example, a middle eastern spiced lentil dish or jackfruit tacos with Mexican flair. Focus on dishes that customers aren’t likely to prepare at home—this ensures that your vegetarian options feel like a treat rather than a limited section of your menu. After all, vegetarians want more than just veggie burgers (and meat-eaters sometimes want a hearty vegetarian meal). When you focus on quality and taste in your meatless offering, you’ll end up with winning items.
2. Reduce your operating costs
Meatless meals can often be prepared using staples you already have in your restaurant kitchen along with cost-effective products like grains and legumes. You can also cook one item a number of different ways to maximize its usage—for example, by offering a grilled cauliflower steak as well as dishes with cauliflower rice, wing-style breaded cauliflower bites, crispy cauliflower tacos or a pizza with a gluten-free cauliflower crust. The idea is to have a variety of premium, plant-based options that use a small number of cost-effective ingredients. We love tenderloin, but legumes will always cost less—so, make room for both.
It’s important to tailor your vegetarian menu items to the seasons so you can use fresh, delicious produce that’s at the height of its quality and best price point. Tomatoes and strawberries are perfect examples—when in season, they cost less and taste incredible, so it makes sense to highlight them as much as possible. Talk to your local Morton rep about what’s available from local vendors and if you have your own garden, use it! This could be as simple as having an herb garden to grab fresh mint or basil from (something your chef and bartender will appreciate in equal measure).
By increasing your vegetarian options, you’ll be adding new flavour combinations, textures and preparations to your menu while reducing operating costs. This approach will take some of the pressure off your protein-heavy items without impacting the quality of your menu (something restaurant operators appreciate even more as inflation and supply chain issues impact food prices across the country). In fact, in many cases, the quality of your menu will increase as you offer a wider variety of food items that are uniquely appealing, seasonal and healthy. This will also help differentiate you from the competition and in some cases, speed up your line. (Have you ever made couscous? All you need is hot water or broth and a timer!)
3. Be more inclusive (and attract more customers)
Customers have a wide variety of food preferences and dietary needs, and they gravitate towards restaurants where they have choices. They may be vegetarian, vegan, pescatarian, gluten-free, dairy-free or some combination of these requirements. As we mentioned before, having a single veggie burger on your menu isn’t going to cut it. Instead, try having a meatless entrée made with grilled vegetables, a grain-based salad bowl with quinoa or farro, a curried lentil dish, an incredible roti or some pulled jackfruit in a house-made BBQ sauce. Play around with sauces and spices, add nuts and seeds for texture, and combine grains to use as a salad base or side dish. This is going to attract a much wider variety of customers than a single, less-than-exciting vegetarian option ever could.
Years ago, it was unfathomable that a non-vegetarian would go to a restaurant and order a meatless dish but now, it’s a regular occurrence—so, if you aren’t offering a variety of dishes that appeal to different preferences, lifestyles and dietary needs, you’re essentially falling behind.
Do more with less meat—we can help
We love meat and always will, so this advice certainly isn’t about eliminating it from your menu. We still want to get that perfect steak, thick cut breakfast bacon or savoury Moroccan chicken dish from our favourite independent restaurants. But we also want to see pumpkin risotto and spicy pumpkin empanadas, or heirloom tomato salads with beetroot, rainbow carrots and spiced couscous. We want to be surprised by some delicious mushrooms on toast, lemon ricotta-filled zucchini blossoms, elotes or deep fried olives in panko. We want all of the hummus and dips your flatbread can hold!
It’s amazing what can be done with a can of lentils or chickpeas, or some dried legumes and a bag of your favourite grains. Get outside your comfort zone and create something spectacular. This is what keeps customers coming back for more and helps solidify your reputation for having innovative, memorable dishes. You have these ingredients at your fingertips—so, make the most of them!
At the end of the day, this is all about balancing your menu: the choices you offer, the expenses and profits involved, and the customers you attract and retain. When you engineer your menu to stand out in quality and appeal more broadly while costing less, everyone wins. To learn more, please contact us—we’re here to help your independent restaurant thrive and grow.