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The Future of Food Franchising: Plant-Based and Alternative Protein Concepts on the Rise in 2023

Plant-based protein has appeared to be everywhere over the last several years. And that includes franchising.

Once a niche segment of the food industry, the plant-based category has been taking over grocery store shelves and restaurant menus alike in recent years. 

In fact, about 25 million consumers eat plant-based beverages and foods occasionally or regularly, consuming these foods as part of a meal or as an ingredient, according to the NPD Group. And about one in five consumers say that they want more plant-based foods in their diet. 

The franchise industry is taking note, with more plant-based concepts coming to market. The reason? A greater awareness around the environment and our own health, says George Montagu-Brown, founder of nomoo, a 100% plant-based fast-food franchise. 

“I think that consumers have become more and more aware of the impact they're having on the environment,” he said. “If you look at trends, consumers have become more aware of their own health as well. When you bring those two together, it's just natural that this is an area of growth right now.” 

Nestle, which created an alternative protein for nomoo, found that 78% of U.S. consumers are actively asking for more plant-based options away from home and that operators expect 20% growth of plant-based foods on menus in the next 12 months, says Fleur Veldhoven, Vice President of Marketing—Food with Nestlé Professional. 

“One of the factors driving increased demand is a desire to eat more sustainably,” Veldhoven added. “Animal proteins are generally more resource-intensive to produce than plant-based foods, increasing pressure on forests, fresh water sources and the climate.” 

What Consumers Are Looking For

When it comes to what brands should prioritize putting on menus, the biggest thing consumers are looking for is taste. In a survey from the International Food Information Council, 53% of respondents said “good taste” was the thing they liked best about plant-based meat alternatives, with 35% and 34% citing a meat-like texture or taste as their favorite aspect, respectively.

“People love the flavor of meats, chicken and milkshakes—right?” noted Montagu-Brown. “So, we've certainly tried to emulate all of the classic fast-food favorites and have not gone down the bean burger route.” 

Veldhoven added that while consumers are seeking out delicious, nutritious, plant-based meat alternatives that taste like their favorite burgers and chicken, affordability and nutrition are increasingly playing an important role in plant-based concepts. 

How Plant-Based Franchises Can Stand Out

One of the best ways for brands to stand out in the increasingly competitive segment is by simply having quality food on the menu, says Montagu-Brown. 

“I think that just making quality products consistently is the real area that a lot of vegan chains struggle with,” he noted. “Some brands are even creating a product that, in a way, is giving vegan food a bad reputation. It’s important to put a lot of care into the food and make it taste delicious.”  

The CEO added that making an effort with Gen Z through social media is key. The young cohort has been found to be some of the top consumers of plant-based products. In a study from Glanbia Nutritionals, Gen Z was cited as most likely to eat plant-based, while Baby Boomers were the least likely, with 54% of global Gen Z consumers trying to restrict consumption of meat and other animal-based products compared to 34% of Baby Boomer consumers.

“We certainly designed ourselves as a Gen Z brand—and that's no accident,” he said, “When you look at who is eating vegan food the most, it is definitely Gen Z. I think that's an opportunity for brands to take advantage of that.”