Guest Spotlight: The Biggest Opportunity Since Fast Casual

By Parth Detroja

I’m sick of hearing the bubbly waitress state gleefully, “Oh, we have a salad that is vegetarian!” “Anything else?” I will plea with my fingers crossed. Ultimately, I will most likely end up ordering some sort of technically carnivorous dish with cheese and veggies, sans the meat.

I have been told by multiple people in multiple countries that I’m an awful vegetarian. I don’t deny it. Rarely is there anything green on my plate. Nor will you see couscous or quinoa. My typical meal will consist of some sort of bread or other grain-based substance with cheese, topped with roasted peppers, onions, and mushrooms. Perhaps I’ll add some sort of soy-based “fake meat” for texture and protein. However, I’ll most likely pass on the kale salad.

I’m fed up, no pun intended, with restaurants that offer one dish to satisfy every possible dietary restriction. Don’t get me wrong, I am an Applied Economics major and I understand that the most economical option is to create one all-purpose dish that is not only vegetarian but also vegan, gluten-free, and devoid of all common food allergens like soy and nuts. The problem is, in most cases, the aforementioned dish is bland and rarely filling.

When I’m dining with friends at an upscale establishment, and I am forced to pay $32 for roasted acorn squash—the sole vegetarian option you offer—please understand you have lost my business forever. I believe the cost of that lost lifetime customer value is much greater than that of having a flavorful lacto-ovo vegetarian option on the menu.

Of the Big Three burger chains, the one that is arguably best positioned for 2016 is Burger King. Morgan Stanley recently called Burger King an “underappreciated story” that most people are overlooking and speculated explosive growth in the near future. Granted, while much of this growth will likely have to do with international expansion and better positioning of Tim Hortons, there is one other factor to consider: neither McDonald’s nor Wendy’s offer a vegetarian burger option. However, Burger King astutely provides a veggie burger for America’s 7.3 million vegetarians.

There is a growing trend in America towards meatless meals and it seems those businesses that realize this will experience the most growth. Without indulging in a meal consisting solely of side options and desserts, a vegetarian cannot comfortably eat at either McDonald’s or Wendy’s. Other major players like Subway, Five Guys, and In-N-Out Burger offer surprisingly tasty grilled cheese and vegetable sandwich options for those opting away from meat. In the fast casual sector, everyone from Chipotle with its Sofritas to Shake Shack with its ‘Shroom burger is making a conscious effort to appeal to vegetarian consumers. Even IKEA recently released a veggie version of its iconic Swedish meatballs.

Many restaurateurs will opt to continue overlooking vegetarians, which to their point only constitute 3.2% of American adults. However, consider this: How often do you get lunch with friends? According to a 2014 study by the NPD Group, 43% of meals aren’t eaten alone. Although you may not be vegetarian yourself, chances are you have a friend or two that is, and that one friend’s dietary restriction will likely influence your restaurant selection for the entire group. So say that you have a group of five friends looking to get lunch together. Statistically speaking, there is a 15.01% chance that at least one of you is vegetarian. When you consider that most people tend to go to restaurants with company, vegetarians become much more difficult to marginalize.

Being vegetarian isn’t a trend. It’s a lifestyle choice that is here to stay. In fact, specialty vegetarian food constitutes a $2.8 billion market comprised of individuals who are less price-sensitive than the average omnivore.

Most vegetarians are not lettuce-loving salad fanatics. For sustainable business growth in the restaurant industry, catering to vegetarian consumers with flavorful meatless options is a must.