At Loma Linda University Medical Center, you won’t find caffeinated beverages, beef hamburgers or even a ham sandwich on the cafeteria menu. That’s because the Loma Linda, Calif.-based facility serves only vegetarian meals in adherence with the values of the local Seventh Day Adventist community.
Instead of imposing limitations on the menu, the plant-centric focus pushes chefs to get creative in developing vegetarian dishes that resonate with all guests. Executive Director of Nutritional Services, Jean Sellars, describes the methods used in her kitchen to develop hot sellers.
Offer a variety of proteins
Eggs are a staple on the breakfast menu and this year’s egg shortage meant culinary staff had to hustle for a viable alternative, ultimately deciding on a tofu-based quiche. This past spring, Sellars and her staff gathered feedback to ensure everyone felt comfortable working with tofu.
Early iterations would over liquefy, but chefs found that draining the tofu longer and adding chia produced an end product that was “visually appealing and had the ability to stay on the steam table for an hour,” Sellars says.
In late May, staff introduced the quiche as an alternative protein option and offered samples to guests. Within a few days they sold out of three pans of product within 90 minutes. Word spread among hospital employees and those on the night shift requested that it be included as an evening option. “We put it on two nights per week as part of our diner menu feature and it sells out every time,” Sellars says.
Let guests customize
To make room for recipes with strong selling potential, Sellars’ staff regularly reviews menu items and nix items that don’t sell well. “It could be a great recipe, but just doesn’t appeal to the customers, so it gets scratched,” she says. Yet, sometimes just revamping a menu item’s presentation can boost its popularity. The cafeteria has long served an ancho chili lentil taco and recently decided to reintroduce it as a build-your-own option with toppings. The small change increased customer interest. “That has taken off very well, to the point where we are selling out,” Sellars says. “People like to control what they are having.”
Develop vegan substitutes that taste “real”
Currently, as part of an effort to increase vegan options, Sellars’ staff routinely tests potential additions to ensure that dairy and meat substitutes mimic the texture and flavor of the real thing. While developing the menu’s vegan macaroni and cheese, staff had challenges in creating a cheese substitute with the right flavor profile. During initial testing the product melted well “but tasted pretty blah,” she says. “[Customers] are not going to buy that.” Staff found that adding nutritional yeast did the trick.
Sellars was adamant about making sure that the product tasted like it was made with real cheese before introducing it on the menu, to appeal to all customers. She believes that this approach ensures vegan items’ popularity. “You wanted it to be a wonderful, palatable product… that [non-vegans] will buy again,” she says.