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Behavior Change
Here’s How to Encourage People to Dine Out More Sustainably

Created in collaboration with food-service experts, WRI’s new playbook is designed to enable the already-rich-in-expertise industry — so adept at marketing and selling foods — to help diners choose healthier and more sustainable, plant-rich options.

UK fast-food lovers can now choose a plant-based Whopper from Burger King. Okay, so it might not be suitable for vegans or vegetarians (the soy-based version of the famous burger will be cooked on the same grill as meat burgers, according to the fast food chain). But the so-called Rebel Whopper is another example of the food service sector attempting to sate the appetite of diners keen on reducing their personal contribution to climate change by cutting down on their meat consumption.

One of the world’s biggest restaurant chains, Pizza Hut, did something similar in the UK late last year, adding a plant-based pepperoni (“pepperphoni”) to its extensive menu.

Giving people a reason to choose the more environmentally sustainable thing on the menu when they are out and about is at the heart of a new campaign launched by the World Resources Institute (WRI). It points to the fact that, per gram of protein, beef production demands 20 times more land and emits 20 times more greenhouse gas emissions than producing plant-based proteins such as beans, peas and lentils.

It has just launched a playbook to give companies across the food service industry some pointers on how to encourage customers to choose more plant-rich meals.

“Shifting diets towards more plants and less meat, especially beef and lamb, is critical to achieving a sustainable food system,” Daniel Vennard, director of WRI’s Better Buying Lab, told Sustainable Brands. Given that vast numbers of people that regularly eat away from home, the food-service sector has huge role to play. In fact, it is “uniquely positioned to take a leadership role in helping people make better food choices.”

The playbook highlights 23 behaviour-change strategies that have emerged in recent years — designed to shift diets for those dining out. They are presented in five categories: product, placement, presentation, promotion and people – the 5 ‘P’s.

When it comes to product strategies, WRI wants to see more restaurants upping their game, modifying plant-rich meals to make them more appealing. This might involve offering a bigger variety of plant-rich dishes, adapting existing recipes to reduce the meat content, adding better tasting and visually appealing plant-rich options, or making changes to food packaging. The playbook offers up examples, for each category, of where such changes have had an impact — here are just a few:

  • Product: When the University of Cambridge switched up the menu at three of its on-site cafés and doubled its vegetarian options, veggie dish sales increased by 70 percent, and meat sales decreased.

  • Presentation: WRI ran a trial with US-based restaurant chain Panera to find out whether simple language changes on its menus and signs could influence sales of one of its plant-rich options, “Low Fat Vegetarian Black Bean Soup.” Panera worked with WRI to develop more appealing names for this dish, eventually opting to test “Slow-Simmered Black Bean Soup,” which showcases the flavor and care taken in preparing the soup; and “Cuban Black Bean Soup,” to highlight the dish’s heritage. While diners were apparently unmoved by the “slow-simmered” aspect of the soup, the item’s new Cuban identity led to a statistically significant 13 percent increase in sales — highlighting the importance of the right language when promoting plant-rich dishes.

  • Placement: Seattle Pacific University doubled the size of its plant-rich food station and rebranded it as “Avant Garden” to also appeal to meat eaters. In the semester following the changes, sales from the station increased by 9 percent.

Clearly, relatively easy changes to the way plant-based options are presented can have a big impact. The same can be said for promotion strategies which focus on optimizing prices and marketing for vegetarian and vegan options.

Of course, the behavior of the people working in food service is also crucial. Hilton’s 10 Days of Burger” campaign used videos to train chefs on how to make a reduced-meat burger with mushrooms blended into the beef. The new blended burger now features widely on Hilton menus around the world.

So, how is the playbook likely to be used across the sector? Vennard says that, rather than suggest a business tries to implement all of the 23 interventions at once, they choose the approaches that make the most sense to them.

“That said, we are finding that a few interventions — such as increasing the variety of plant-rich dishes, increasing the relative number of plant-rich dishes on offer, and ensuring those dishes have a superior flavour and texture — are critical,” he adds.

The huge environmental impact of meat consumption is well-documented. And the food service sector has an important role to play in enabling dietary change. In the US, spending on dining out represents about half of the average consumer’s food budget. In the UK, people spend around £1,000 a year on eating out.

Created in collaboration with a number of food experts and those working in the sector, the playbook is designed to enable the already-rich-in-expertise industry — so adept at marketing and selling foods — to apply its capabilities to help diners choose healthier and more sustainable, plant-rich options.

“Many companies are simply unaware of the best strategies for helping their consumers make better food choices,” Vennard says. “Our research has unearthed a range of low-cost, high-impact strategies that food service companies can use to shift diets. And many companies we’ve spoken to say a transition towards more plant-rich diets is both good for growth and their bottom line.”