14 plant-based catering trends every event prof needs to know about

isla's MarComms Lead and committed vegan Miriam Habtesellasie outlines what to look out for in the plant-based food scene.

As Veganuary marks its 9th year (with an impressive sign up rate of one person every 2.4 seconds globally in 2023!) and a 2022 report commissioned by the international environmental group No Meat May revealed that 50% of the UK population won’t eat meat by 2040, it’s clear that plant-based diets and the food trends they’ve inspired are here to stay.

We’ve already seen plant-based catering get top billing at events designed by event profs for event profs ​​ some memorable examples in 2022 include a moreish beetroot hummus as part of self-serve salad bar at Cvent CONNECT London and a tasty Asian noodle salad and vegan-friendly snack bar at C&IT Sustainability Forum and it’s something we really advocate at isla, as research has shown that moving towards plant-based diets has the potential to slash diet-related greenhouse gas emissions by a whopping 49%.

So, what’s to come? Below we lift the proverbial lid on some tasty trends in plant-based catering including those provided by isla members themselvesthat could make you rethink everything you know about saying no to meat, and saying yes to plants in 2023 and beyond. 

1. Caterers are making a push for plant-based

Industry-title The Caterer is holding a virtual plant-based summit later this month, which, among other topics, includes a deep dive into the hottest trends in plant-based hospitality and looks at how to capitalise on the marketing potential of plant-based menu items. The speaker line-up includes heavy weights in the world of plant-based cuisine, including Irina Linovich, the founder of upscale Knightsbridge plant-based eatery Holy Carrot. Find full details here

2. Sales of vegan and veggie meals up YoY, say Sodexo

Food services and facilities management giant Sodexo has released new figures which show that it sold a slightly higher proportion of vegan and veggie meals between January and November 2022 compared to the same period last year (10% vs 8%). Figures were slightly higher than average across its Health & Care client sites (17%), while the largest YoY increase was seen in Sodexo’s Energy and Resources client sites (12% vs 2%).

Interestingly, the East Midlands (at 21%) emerged as UK region that sold the most vegetarian and vegan meals. For comparison this figure sat at 11% for London. Claire Atkins-Morris, Director of Corporate Responsibility at Sodexo, argued that this uplift is due to “a shift in consumer awareness, a wider range of options and a marketplace responding”.

3. Veganuary gets top billing

Brakes, the UK’s leading wholesale foodservice supplier, announced that it has created its “most comprehensive package for Veganuary to date” in 2023 to support its catering and hospitality customers. This includes a number of vegan menu plans – featuring dishes such as the swede roast, pictured above – with accompanying nutritional information and support videos, all of which you can find here and are designed to “add stand out vegan dishes to any menu”.

In another boon for Veganuary, Brentford FC announced that it would be promoting vegan options for fans at its match with West Ham United as part of its wider Veganuary campaign. Levy UK + Ireland – who also appear in trend 4 – are the club’s catering partner and they’ll be serving up a tasty menu of plant-based dishes in general admission concourses, family areas and the Legends Lounge. On the menu includes everything from buttermilk Quorn burgers to vegan chana masala.

And what of the potential impact? Brentford writes that: ‘If every fan switches to a 100% plant-based menu in hospitality for the Brentford v West Ham FA Cup fixture, they will generate a saving of at least 1,875 kg CO₂, which is the equivalent of driving from London to Edinburgh 20 times’. 

4. Venue tests going all-vegan

In 2022 The 02 Arena announced that it was “committed to go 100% vegan on food throughout the arena” with the help of its catering partner Levy UK + Ireland for the duration of superstar singer Billie Eilish’s six-night residency in June. The residency formed part of her worldwide ‘Overheated’ tour focusing on raising climate awareness. Will other major event venues follow suit? It’s a case of watch and wait.

5. Vending machines go vegan

Yes, you read that right. The humble vending machine is getting a green makeover with innovations spotted across all corners of the globe. From the Isle of Man launching its first vegan vending machine (head on over to the departure lounge inside the Sea Terminal in Douglas to see it in action) to Costa trialling its first-ever self-service vegan coffee machine serving oat milk exclusively at its Shell site in Beaconsfield. Meanwhile over in Sweden how does Scandinavia always pip the world to the post in terms of sustainability? Swedish start-up VEAT has placed vegan vending machines selling salads, wraps, ready-meals, snacks and beverages in department stores, office buildings and co-working spaces across locations in Stockholm, with plans afoot to roll out to other European cities.

6. Plant-based gets the green light at arenas over the pond

Where better to look to than the US for emerging shifts in plant-based dining? If it’s happening over the pond, it’s likely to wing its way to the UK at some point. That’s why it’s exciting to hear that late last year LA-based event producer ASM Global signed a multi-year partnership between plant-based food company Wicked Kitchen (the UK brand has made a name for itself through its exclusive stockist Tesco). The latter will become the exclusive plant-based food provider for SAVOR, ASM’s culinary division, across its network of arenas, stadiums, theatres, and convention centres.

7. Plant-based food bars create visual and taste appeal

“Food bars create great visual centrepiece as well as offering a sociable and immersive culinary experience for guests. In the past few years, we have seen growing enthusiasm for vegetarian and plant-based menus, driven partly by the focus on sustainable food options, and partly by the growing trend for health-focused practices,” says isla member and specialist event caterer By Word of Mouth. “Our Plantarium (pictured above), a vibrant selection of plant-based dishes, presented in miniature glasses alongside bowls of freshly prepared baby vegetables, is a stunning example of how a food bar can provide both wow-factor and a delicious eating experience, tapping into the trend for informality whilst delivering high levels of elegance and style.”

8. Mushrooms have their moment

2023 is all about the love of all things fungi. And as if to prove this point, two mushroom-derived alternative-to-meat proteins, MyBacon (pictured above and made from farm-grown mycelium) and Meati Crispy Cutlet a faux crispy chicken that is 95% mushroom root made into Time Magazine’s prestigious ranking of the 200 best inventions of 2022.

Mega brand Quorn also announced late last year that it will be heading up the newly created Fungi Protein Association (FPA) along with several other member companies from across Europe and the US including the Nature’s Fynd, Enough, The Better Meat Co., The Protein Brewery, Prime Roots, Mycotechnology, and Mycorena. The aim of the association? “To raise awareness and appreciation of the wonderful ways this sustainable resource can be harnessed to improve the health of people and of our planet,” Judd Zusel, President, North America of Quorn Foods, told outlet VegNews.

9. Event attendees are saying yes to ‘outside of the box’ plant-based flavours

“Innovative plant-based options are continuing to go down a storm with our event attendees. Favourites include our banana flower ‘fish’ and chips battered and fried banana flower with a pleasing juicy, flaky texture that mimics cod – and our super spicy vegan sauces like our kelp & mushroom XO sauce,” says isla member and London-based creative food & event design company Bubble Food. “Attendees are becoming more familiar with plant-based options and are increasingly willing to sample experimental plant-based dishes and flavour combinations.”

10. IKEA’s Swedish parent company set to launch plant-based food halls

If you’ve stepped into an IKEA restaurant recently you may have been surprised by its plant-based offering which includes ‘accidentally’ vegan items such as its vegetarian hot dog and newer additions including its vegan cheesecake and vegan soft serve. This is all part of the Swedish brand’s plans to ensure its bistro menus are 50% plant-based by 2025 (great news for us vegans). Now it’s been revealed that its parent company Ingka Group will be launching Saluhall, a Nordic-themed 80% – growing to 100% – plant-based food hall, with locations planned in Changsha, China; Gurugram, India; and San Francisco, CA. Nordic street food on offer will centre around four key areas – bakery, beer, burgers and ice-cream and the halls will also house an on-site cookery school.

“Saluhall will be Ingka Centres’ first food hall concept that will not sell beef,” says Jens Nielsen, Ingka Centres’ Commercial and Digital Director. “The principles reflect the explosive growth and influences of the sustainable Scandinavian dining scene over the past two decades, making quality food that is kinder to people and the planet more available for everyday visitors to Meeting Places.”

11. More plant-based food choices = more uptake, says Oxford University research

What can caterers do to encourage event attendees to embrace plant-based offerings? Offer more of it says, Dr Rachel Pechey, University of Oxford Postdoctoral Researcher in Health Behaviours. Writing in a blog for the UK Energy Research Centre – which carries out ‘world-class, interdisciplinary research into sustainable future energy systems’ – she revealed that three successive studies carried out by the university showed that in whichever setting they increased the number of plant-based options they saw an increase in uptake.

As an example, she writes: ‘In one study, a university cafeteria that changed the menu to offer two plant-based and one meat option, instead of one plant-based and two meat options, for four months. When a third of the options were meat-free, around 40% of the meals diners bought were meat-free. This rose to around 60% when two-thirds were meat-free’. The takeaway? Don’t be afraid to have a heavy skew towards plant-based dishes on your event menus.

12. Vegan chefs are upping their profile

2022 saw MasterChef UK welcome Meg Long – owner of vegan food page @offtheeatentrack – as a contestant, while plant-based chef Teresa Colaco was crowned the winner of MasterChef Portugal, and Alex Lenghel was named as MasterChef Romania’s first – although short-lived – contestant. The year also saw Omari McQueen – the youngest vegan chef & restauranteur in the world and Britain’s youngest award-winning TV chef & author, pictured above – become the face of the Green School Menu League, a competition launched by Meatless Farm – for which he’s an ambassador – in collaboration with non-profit ProVeg UK’s School Plates programme seeking out the UK’s greenest school menu (an accolade, incidentally, which was won by The London Borough of Waltham Forest whose menu includes dishes such as Jamaican patties and planet-friendly pizza).

13. Downturn in plant-based ‘meats’?

“We think clients are going to want to move away from highly processed fake meats and look for more natural plant-based offerings – less Beyond Burgers and more legume-based plant proteins,” predicts isla member and global catering, hospitality and brand experience company.Global Infusion Group.

It certainly seems that plant-based meats are declining in popularity in some quarters with figures from Beyond Meat revealing a 89.5% downturn of net revenues and 22.5% decrease in revenue year-over-year in Q3 2022. A 2022 survey conducted by Deloitte in the US also showed that there had been no YoY growth in the number of people in the number of survey respondents who say they sometimes buy plant-based alternative (PBA) meat (remaining at 47%), while the number of people willing to pay a premium for PBA meat dropped 9 percentage points compared to 2021 to reach 46% in 2022. 

As a vegan, I can say PBA meat is still a regular feature in my shopping basket (Iceland’s No Bull range ticks the boxes for price point and flavour) but I’m a still a fan of veg-heavy burgers such as Jack Monroe’s 18p carrot, cumin and kidney burgers. We also can’t ignore the insight from trend 8.

14. Food waste goes fine dining

We’ve already seen trends such of whole-of-vegetable cooking – also referred to as root-to-stalk/stem/shoot or similar – helping to minimise food waste, including inventive examples such as this plant-based celebration of broccoli above (comprised of braised broccoli heart, broccoli stem ribbons, tenderstem heads, crispy pickled shallots, broccoli emulsion and cashew-cream) from venue caterers Moving Venue, part of isla members Smart Group.

But now fine dining restaurants around the world are using food scraps, soft fruit and more and fashioning them into high end food and drink. London’s Silo restaurant focuses exclusively on zero-waste menus with the strap line that the restaurant is ‘designed from back to front, always with the bin in mind’. Another London success story when it comes to food waste is restaurant 1251 which debuted a five-course fine-dining menu made entirely from food waste in 2022, which included, amongst other items apple gel made from damaged Morrisons apples and dishes such as curried potato matchsticks and haddock rarebit on toast. The overall cost to make? An impressive £2.69 per person!

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