The Rise Of Veg, The Fall Of Meat: A Restaurant Case Study
We would like to give a huge thanks to Ron Barrette and Rooster’s Coffeehouse at Carleton University (Ottawa, Ontario, Canada) for sharing their sales data with us for this analysis!
There has been intense discussion of late about the rise in sales of vegan and vegetarian foods across the U.S., Canada, and the world. Companies like Beyond Meat and products like the Impossible Burger are making huge waves with additions to nationwide fast-food menus, and the growth in demand and consumption seems to be mirrored in the growth of investment in the sector. This seeming rising tide has been a strong shot in the arm for animal advocates, who are simultaneously pushing for growth of plant-based options, starting campaigns to make veg options the default, and of course, continuing to put pressure on corporations to make welfare commitments.
These large-scale trends are great to see, but we thought it would be good to get a fine-grained picture of what these trends look like “on the ground.” What follows is actual order data from a veg-friendly café, with some interpretation of what the data might indicate.
The Increase In Veg Orders
Rooster’s is quite a veg-friendly café, with multiple vegetarian and vegan options. While vegetarian orders have always made up a substantial part of their business, over the past five years, the proportion of veg orders has increased by 13%, displacing meat orders. (An important note: the number of veg options on the menu has not changed year over year. Also, the restaurant serves plant-based proteins like tofu, veg patties, and falafel, but not Beyond Meat or Impossible products at this time.)
What Is Behind This Trend?
Rooster’s main offerings are breakfasts (sandwiches, toast, omelets, etc.) and pitas, with many varieties of each. The increase in veg orders is not limited to one category or the other, but it is larger for the breakfast items, as you can see in the graph below.
While the proportion of vegetarian pitas ordered has increased from 24.7% to 27.1%, the increase in vegetarian breakfast orders is twice that, having gone from 54.1% to 59.7%.
There is an interesting thing to note here: more and more people are choosing breakfast items over pitas—a trend we see on a large scale with the increasing emphasis on breakfast menus at chains like McDonald’s and Tim Hortons. Breakfast orders made up two thirds (66.5%) of Rooster’s food sales in 2017/18, up from 61.4% in 2013/14. In short, people like breakfast items more than lunch items, and that preference is growing.
A Gentle Nudge
But why are veg orders increasing?
Consider this: At McDonald’s, every breakfast sandwich on their menu has meat on it. Sure, you can ask for it without, but then it feels like you’re paying for something you’re not getting. It’s not an attractive option to a meat-eater, let alone someone that eats a veg diet.
In contrast, all but one of Rooster’s 11 breakfast items (the BLT) have a default choice of vegetarian. It’s not that you can’t have meat on your breakfast sandwich, but you have to think of it, order it specifically, and pay a little extra for it. It’s the reverse of McDonalds.
This is what psychologists and behavioral economists call a nudge. When done deliberately, it means setting up a situation to encourage people to choose one way versus another, without forcing them. We’ve covered nudges a bit in our library, and here, Rooster’s decision to offer flexibility to customers by having them add meat to default-veg options is probably encouraging more vegetarian orders.
If one wanted to do the same thing with the pitas, it would be a simple reframing of the menu. Just offer a default veggie option to which the customer can add any meat they like. The total price could be identical (veggie base + meat cost = current cost of the pita) but veg orders would probably go up.
As I already noted, there’s been a relative increase of 13% in the proportion of total food orders that are vegetarian over the past five years. Therefore, at the same time, meat orders have decreased by 13%.
Looking at the specifics in the graph below, the upward trend is clearly visible for veg orders at the top. The decline in meat sales is harder to spot because it’s divided among the different types, but over the same time period, sales of all types of meat have fallen.
Meanwhile, we can see below that a similar, more visible trend is present specifically in the breakfast orders. The rise in veg breakfast orders seems to more directly mirror the fall in orders of pork. While chicken orders have fallen by a couple of percentage points over time, it’s been a less dramatic decline.
A final look at the order data shows an interesting trend: orders of veg pitas with protein have increased, while orders of “basic” veg pitas (eggplant and veggies) have decreased. This may suggest that consumers are becoming more aware that they should not only remove meat, but replace it with something that provides protein and flavor. This type of engagement in food choices is likely a positive thing for everyone involved.
The above data, while limited to one restaurant in one town, shows some interesting trends playing out on the most granular scale. It wouldn’t be accurate for us to extrapolate the results from this case study out to all restaurants in all contexts. However, this analysis seems to dovetail with what we see happening in larger trends and advocacy strategies around North America.
We would encourage other restaurants — especially mixed veg and non-veg restaurants — use more veg defaults on their menus. It’s a simple change, and doesn’t reduce consumer freedom in any way. It should even increase profit margins, as meat tends to be the most expensive part of a dish! The results from Rooster’s show us that — at least in one case — having a range of default veg items on a menu could be a key driving factor in the rise of veg orders, and that has big implications.
These results also demonstrate the importance of the breakfast market, which has been expanding on the national scale as well. How that expansion is handled with respect to veg options and default choices will have a big impact.
At the risk of speculating too far into the future, we can see that the upward trend of veg orders at Rooster’s hasn’t yet leveled off, so the ultimate impact of the mostly veg default menu may not yet be known. A 13% rise in veg orders may be just the beginning… for one café or the world.