Operators are improving vegetarian options as demand increases.
Vegetarian has become trendy. It has been estimated that 30% to 40% of Americans are interested in eating meatless meals at least occasionally. Health benefits, animal welfare, the environment and the economy have all become reasons for the shift toward vegetarian fare instead of meat. That leaves foodservice directors responsible for coming up with new ways to increase vegetarian menus.
“The number of vegetarian students is on the rise,” says Maggie Guinta, nutrition specialist for the Pasco County School District in Florida. “We do student focus groups about menu trends. What kind of money do they want to spend? What are they ordering at restaurants? We want something they like but also something healthy.
“We have a vegetarian rib sandwich with barbecue flavor that we sell on the same day we serve a pork sandwich,” Guinta says. “We have a hummus platter, a yogurt platter and a vegetarian burger with a teriyaki flavor. We’re also going to begin a sushi program and bring in vegetarian breakfast items.”
Exhibition cooking is one method for showing off new vegetarian dishes.
“The way I introduce any new menu idea is to do a chef’s table,” says Anthony Labriola, executive chef and food production manager for Aramark at the Imperial Point Medical Center in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “This showcases the item being prepared. It allows customers the opportunity to sample items that they have never tried, plus they can ask the chef questions.”
Labriola enjoys the rapport with his customers as he introduces vegetarian dishes to the menu.
“Customers love to ask questions and are curious about things they may never have seen or tasted; that’s why giving a sample is imperative for the success of new items. The other great thing is that you will get instant feedback,” he says. “When we do vegetarian meals here we usually gravitate toward Chinese-type fare. I will do a sauté station with baby corn, rice noodles, bok choy, bean sprouts, shredded carrots, red and green peppers, water chestnuts, pea pods and onions and then toss it with a spicy black plum sauce. Customers get to see this being prepared and they can add or omit any of the options. We have had tremendous success using this strategy.”
Beth Yesford, foodservice director at Providence Hospital in Washington, D.C., offers at least one vegetarian item daily on the cafeteria menu.
“We get many of our ideas from out in the community, but we also have dietitians researching healthy vegetarian foods for restrictive diets,” Yesford says. “Even in catering, people have been asking for more vegetarian items. We’ve been serving a lot of sprouts, brown rice, risotto, quinoa and fresh veggies with couscous. We also do a veggie lo mein and the traditional eggplant parmesan and lasagna.”
Nicole Emmitt, foodservice director at Intermountain Healthcare in Salt Lake City, attributes many of the vegetarian recipes her department uses to her staff.
“One of our cooks owned a vegan restaurant before he worked here, even though he’s not a vegan himself, and some of our staff are vegetarians,” Emmitt says. “We’ve tried vegetarian pasta dishes, but they don’t go as well here as they do back East. Our biggest vegetarian hit is a stir-fry with tofu. We also serve a very good cold sandwich with hummus and grilled veggies.”
Ron Rudebock, director of Dining Services at Humboldt State University in Arcata, Calif., claims that communication is essential for keeping customers satisfied while addressing new trends.
“Talking to students is key,” Rudebock says. “We have a bulletin board and we encourage students to leave napkin notes.”
Every meal includes a vegetarian and usually a vegan alternative. Four soups are served daily at Humboldt; two are always vegetarian.
“We like to take regular meals and omit the meat or cheese and substitute it with something vegetarian,” Rudebock says. “For some reason, as the school year progresses, we find that we have more vegetarians.”
Vegans will not eat animal products like dairy, gelatin or even honey. As a result, soy milk has become a popular item at Humboldt State.
“Last year we had soy quart containers in coolers behind the counter, and it had to be requested,” Rudebock says. “This year we put four different soy milk flavors in a cream dispenser machine and it’s a big hit.”
At Humboldt, students enjoy a wide variety of vegetarian cuisine.
“We have tofu dishes, pizzas, lasagnas and eggplant parmesan—with cheese alternatives for the vegans,” Rudebock says. “For dinners, we have different themes from night to night. If we have a burger line then we’ll do garden burgers or Boca burgers. One night we’ll have a sushi bar, but it’s always a challenge to work fast enough to keep the line moving.”
At BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina in Columbia, Director of Food Services Vinnie Livoti says he doesn’t get many requests for all-vegetarian dishes—perhaps due to the company’s location in the South.
“At most of our made-to-order stations, we have vegetarian options, such as garden burgers, veggie wraps or sandwiches at the deli,” he says. “We always have three to four vegetables served daily and a full salad bar.”
The vegetarian trend is strong at the University of San Francisco and the Bon Appétit team takes advantage.
“Our chef goes out to vegan/vegetarian restaurants to get inspiration,” says Jon Hall, the university’s executive chef, who designed the vegan/vegetarian station in the dining hall. “We have a big salad bar, hot entrées and three daily vegan/vegetarian soups.”
District Manager Holly Winslow says Hall makes sure vegetarian is not a secondary thought like in a lot of other operations. Hall has also orchestrated a vegan/vegetarian bakery team.
“I think that one of the coolest components here is that Jon has an entire vegan pastry and sweets line,” Winslow says. “So students can get vegan muffins, vegan coffee cakes and cookies in a university setting. It is truly a restaurant experience, which I think makes USF cutting edge.”
The Omnivore's Delimma
In many operations a surprising number of meat-eaters will eat vegetarian options.
Whether it is cheese pizza, pasta with tomato sauce, rice and beans or macaroni and cheese, non-vegetarians have always been hungry for meatless dishes.
“During the last several years, we have found students that would not really call themselves vegetarian eat vegetarian meals several times a week,” says Gina Brooks-Lay, general manager for RPS Dining at Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind. “We have also seen students become much more sophisticated with their choices.”
Students on campus have become more daring with their vegetarian choices, even opting for vegan fare, Brook-Lay adds.
“Some favorites have been: vegan mac n’ “cheese,” vegan sloppy joes, black bean enchiladas, kasha with zucchini and peppers, hummus pizza and tofu with ginger peanut sauce,” she notes. “Some favorite vegan baked goods are: tofu brownies, pumpkin raisin walnut bread, applesauce pound cake and Hoosier oat bread.”
Many elementary and secondary schools have traditionally served meatless items on a regular basis. Recent data from the School Nutrition Association shows 64% of school nutrition programs offer a vegetarian option on a consistent basis, which is an increase of 42 percentage points from 2003, when 22% of districts reported offering vegetarian options consistently.
“We’ve always had vegetarian items, such as cheese pizza instead of pepperoni, and grilled cheese sandwiches instead of a sandwich with some sort of meat protein on there,” says Karen Crawford, R.D., nutrition coordinator for Gwinnett County Public Schools in Georgia. “Two years ago we decided to bring in specific vegetarian options. We brought in a black bean burger and vegetarian soy-based chicken products.”
Now, in all of the Gwinnett County schools, a specific vegetarian option is available every day.
“We try to mimic the vegetarian line to the non-vegetarian main line item as much as possible,” Crawford says. “We’ll have vegetarian chicken tenders on chicken tender day and vegetarian meatballs on spaghetti and meatball day and a veggie burger on burger day. The kids are getting the same choices and it looks the same. We have had great success with this. We find that a lot of our students who are not vegetarian are choosing to eat these products on certain days because it tastes good and they enjoy eating it.”
Go Meat-less for health
CulinArt’s nutrition specialist encourages a vegan lifestyle for all vegetarians.
Anna Bullett’s knowledge of food and nutrition fuels her creative concoctions to ensure healthful and tasteful fare with a passionate integrity. A registered dietitian, Bullett joined CulinArt, the Long Island, N.Y.-based food management firm, in June 2008. As the company’s culinary development and nutrition specialist, she is responsible for all nutrition programs. Bullett brings to CulinArt a dual background in clinical nutrition and foodservice as a graduate of Johnson & Wales University’s culinary arts and culinary nutrition programs.
“It is my responsibility to stay current with food-related health and nutrition information and trends. In almost all of our cafés we find vegetarian customers seeking tasty, wholesome, meat-free choices.
It’s important to remember that you can serve veggie-versions of traditional menu items that you would cook for meat eaters. We serve vegetarian stews and dishes such as vegetarian chili and split pea soup with sweet potato instead of ham. We make spaghetti and veggie-bean balls instead of meatballs.
I have a lentil walnut loaf; a hippie meatloaf if you will. I use cooked oatmeal as a binder; it works really well. It has onions and carrots. We make shepherd’s pie using tempeh, a fermented soy product, instead of ground beef. We make risotto, loaded up with vegetables and white beans. We make a veggie pot pie using tofu in lieu of chicken—just sub tofu for chicken and use a veggie stock in the gravy.
Make sure you’re using vegetarian bases and if you’re calling a soup vegan, ensure there is no gelatin or other animal products in the base.
I think that vegan is the way to go because vegetarians will eat vegan, but vegans will not eat vegetarian. I’m trying to focus on getting all our chefs to realize that cheese isn’t the only vegetarian protein. Many chefs just omit meat from dishes or pile on cheese. We should try to get away from cheese as the substitute for meat and use legumes and grains together, which form a complete protein.
Though vegetarians can eat cheese, cheese is high in saturated fat. If people are vegetarians for health reasons, we’re not doing them any favors by giving them cheese as their protein.
Any vegetarian who has been to a catered affair has eaten a roasted vegetable Napoleon, an experience that likely left them bored and still hungry. Yes, vegetarians like vegetables, but there is no protein in vegetables. We need protein to build muscle, perform a variety of body functions and to feel full.
The bottom line is coming up with different and creative ways to combine different grains and beans. Beans alone do not have all the amino acids, and grains alone do not have all the amino acids that make up protein; they must be combined to make a complete protein.
Soy is one of very few complete vegetable proteins, so we’ve been serving some tofu dishes, but you know tofu can be a bit boring. Polenta is a fun, versatile dish. Because it’s a grain, all you need to do is combine it with a bean and voilà—vegetarian meal.
Different whole grains and using beans other than the usual kidney and garbanzo is the key. We make hummus by puréeing white beans with fresh herbs, which is a fun way to add protein to a sandwich.
Definitely trendy right now is quinoa, which actually has a lot of protein in it even though it is a grain. It’s crunchy and nutty and quite versatile. You can upscale quinoa pilaf; instead of serving it plopped into a bowl, you can stuff it into a pepper or tomato.
For inspired vegetarian dishes, one simply has to turn to cuisines from around the world where meatless meals are commonplace due to meat’s high price and limited availability. Indian and Middle Eastern diets are based around vegetables, grains and legumes. Along with ethnic eats, American comfort food remains a strong trend.”