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With the advent of the pandemic, foodservice operators have changed the way they offer self-serve meals and snacks. Salad and taco bars have been closed and replaced in many of these establishments by grab-and-go formats. Portable grab-and-go menu items have helped keep operators afloat during the crisis, while satisfying consumer demands for safe, convenient foods they can eat later.
Plant-forward foods, which continue to gain in popularity, are especially well-suited to grab-and-go service, as they appeal to consumers looking for better-for-you ingredients and on-trend global flavors.
According to Datassential’s COVID-19 Report 44: A Long Winter, off-premise dining proved to be a key strategy for operators in December, 2020. As the weather cooled and seating availability decreased, 87% of commercial restaurants and 52% of onsite operators offered carryout/takeout options to their customers. Also, 46% of restaurants and 57% of onsite operators remained open in some form since the start of the pandemic, the study found. For many, that entailed offering a selection of takeout options, including grab-and-go.
Many of these to-go menu items are plant-based, which are especially attractive to younger consumers. According to Datassential, in its COVID-19 Report 18: Where’s the Meat?, when asked what style describes the way they eat, 7% of respondents said vegetarian, but 15% of Generation Z identified as such. Gen Z respondents were also more likely to identify as vegan, with 6% saying so, compared to 2% of all respondents.
Here are some ways to turn grab-and-go foods into exciting new culinary adventures with plant-based ingredients.
According to the Good Food Institute, one of the trends to watch in 2021 will be the appearance of plant-based fare on a wider array of menus, reflecting consumer demand for more foods from different cultures and global cuisines. Plant-based foods also will appear in more use occasions, including in ready-to-eat and grab-and-go foods to better fill consumer demands for convenience.
Protein-rich beans are especially versatile and play a key role in innovative, globally inspired menu items. They are ubiquitous in Mexican and Mediterranean foods, and are also found in less well-known cuisines such as Filipino. For example, red mung beans, which are cooked, pureed and sweetened, are made into a paste that serves as a filling in desserts.
“Traditionally, you would find them in tasty, sweet mung bean-filled pastry desserts such as Hopia, which is super portable,” says Ken Oakley, Senior Brand Manager of Foodservice. “Other global cuisines that stand out are French with cassoulet and Italian with a white bean stew, both of which can be packaged for a grab-and-go option.”
Try variations on a theme
Hummus has long been a popular menu item, and operators can offer new iterations of it using different beans. Instead of making it with chickpeas, try cannellini beans or pinto beans, or blend avocado or roasted carrots together with the beans. The resulting hummus provides not only a great dip, but also a delicious ingredient in sandwiches, or a component of a small charcuterie-like snack box. Hummus can also be employed as a key ingredient in wraps, which are the quintessential grab-and-go foods because they are portable and can feature a wide range of ingredients.
Another global menu item is falafel, which can be served in a wrap, as a topping on a salad or even as a dipper for hummus. “Falafel tastes great warm or cold, and also freezes beautifully,” Oakley says. In fact, beans offer much flexibility in these dishes. While falafel is traditionally prepared with chickpeas, operators can substitute black beans.
In addition, beans can add appeal to other on-trend global foods, such as Mediterranean grain bowls. Tabouleh, a Middle Eastern salad made with bulgur, can be prepared with lentils instead. In addition, global inspiration can be found in such bean-based comfort foods as Calabrian white beans with pork, Mexican street corn chili, and Portuguese chorizo, kale and bean soup.
“All of these ideas are easily portable and allow operators to customize based on their operations,” Oakley says.
Package to go
Grab-and-go took off during the pandemic because the process cuts down on customers lingering, which helps with social distancing. Having the foods already packaged and ready for pickup also makes traffic in the dining area flow more quickly, which speeds operations. While the setup allows less customization than self-serve bars, operators can offer containers with the main meal component such as a grain bowl or burrito, and other items such as beans or hummus packaged separately.
As foodservice operators continue to adapt their business models to include more grab-and-go fare, they are relying on appealing menu items that answer the consumer's demand for more global flavors and better-for-you foods. Plant-based foods, especially those containing beans, are particularly well-suited for this because of their culinary versatility and their ability to provide protein in a variety of international dishes that are on-trend now.