Using Choice Architecture To Drive Vegan Food Sales
Many restaurant operators and other food business professionals want to encourage the public to eat more plant-based foods. However, they also don’t want to isolate omnivores or lose out on income. Luckily, insights from behavioral economics suggest that food businesses don’t have to sacrifice one or the other if they want to be successful.
In this article, ProVeg explores how choice architecture is being used in the Global North to encourage plant-based food purchases. “Choice architecture” describes the act of organizing the environment where consumers make choices to influence what they choose. An example is nudging, where consumers are steered toward a decision without taking away any of their previous options (e.g., adding a tax to sugary foods to make them less appealing). With choice architecture, consumers are directed towards a better option while also respecting their freedom of choice.
The report describes several ways that European food businesses are adopting choice architecture and other lessons from behavioral economics. Generally, these include crafting a strategic menu, increasing the visibility and availability of plant-based options, and making plant-based food more accessible to the public and chefs alike.
Improving The Menu
According to the report, it’s ideal to avoid separating plant-based items from non-vegan ones on a menu, which can reduce ordering rates by as much as 56%. Flexitarians may find it easier to ignore plant-based items listed separately. It may also reinforce the idea that plant-based meals are different and decrease the appeal.
The authors note that many restaurants label vegan and vegetarian (veg*n) options with “V” or “Ve,” but this may deter non-vegan customers who view the labels as something to avoid. Because of this, they recommend using alternatives such as a leaf symbol or “PB” to indicate plant-based. The belief is that veg*ns will try to understand what the symbol means, but mainstream consumers will gloss over it.
According to the report, price is secondary only to taste when it comes to purchase motivation. Plant-based alternatives typically cost a higher premium, which acts as a nudge in the wrong direction for consumers. Nevertheless, some retailers are absorbing the costs to be more sustainable. In January 2022, for example, Starbucks announced they would no longer charge consumers more for plant-based milks. The authors recommend making plant-based and non-vegan items comparable in pricing, and perhaps partnering with vegan food manufacturers to secure favorable prices that can be passed on to consumers.
Increasing Availability And Visibility
The authors claim that many food businesses have introduced more plant-based dishes to their menus without affecting sales. In 2021, for example, the restaurant Wagamama made its menu 50% plant-based and reported an increase of vegan orders from 5% to 20% between 2021 and 2022. When plant-based options are available, it’s best to make sure they’re placed alongside the non-vegan ones to show consumers they’re an option.
The shift to more plant-based items doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing endeavor. The report describes how some businesses are swapping out meat-based ingredients with plant-based ones, even if the recipe remains non-veg*n. For example, restaurants can consider mixing meat with beans or providing plant-based protein as a topping for a dairy pizza. A related concept is hosting a weekly meat-free day at schools or canteens.
Reaching Consumers And Chefs
When it comes to purchasing plant-based foods, research suggests that non-vegan consumers prioritize taste expectations and whether they fit their existing views of an animal-based product. In other words, many consumers value the comfort and familiarity of foods they’ve always eaten.
Cultural barriers are hard to break, but ProVeg has a few recommendations. First, food businesses should create plant-based versions of their country’s famous dishes to ease consumers into changing their habits with familiar meals. Secondly, consumers don’t want to miss out on their protein, so they recommend replacing animal proteins with a suitable plant-based equivalent (in other words, for many non-vegans, a mushroom burger won’t cut it as a replacement for a meat burger). Third, businesses should emphasize the national or traditional identities of their plant-based options with appealing language. For example, one U.K. retailer found that renaming their “Meat-Free Sausage and Mash” to “Cumberland-Spiced Veggie Sausage & Mash” increased canteen sales of the dish by 76%.
Making people want to eat more plant-based foods is one thing, but there needs to be chefs to make it happen. Unfortunately, the authors claim that many chefs aren’t aware of how to work with plant-based dishes. This is partly because catering training doesn’t require plant-based lessons. The report notes that many plant-based products, especially well-established ones, will train chefs on how to use their merchandise. Even restaurant staff need to be informed about the definition of “vegan,” “vegetarian,” “flexitarian,” and “plant-based” to help patrons make informed decisions.
Sowing The Seeds Of Change
As the report suggests, food-service professionals have the power to nudge consumers toward a more sustainable and plant-rich future. Even small changes, such as adjusting how a menu is laid out, can encourage more people to consider plant-based purchases. From there, adopting more than one of the authors’ recommendations may help food businesses achieve a win-win for themselves, animals, and the environment.
Animal advocates who work with restaurants and other food businesses can use these insights as evidence that you don’t need to lose out financially in order to create a more humane business. They can also advocate for more plant-based training in culinary schools and catering programs. Finally, they can work to change societal norms so that all consumers feel comfortable ordering plant-based food without feeling negative social backlash.