Can Rhode Island restaurants keep up with the biggest food trend?

There is no shortage of tasty restaurants here in Rhode Island. From our famous calamari and clam cakes to coffee milk and doughboys, we have something for everyone. Well, almost. A blossoming food trend around the world and, budding here in the Ocean State, is the craving for plant-based options. Plant-based foods currently drive $7.4 billion in U.S. economic growth. Despite this trend, many Rhode Island restaurants are missing out on the business potential of adding plant-based options to their menus.

There are several reasons introducing more plant-based foods will support restaurant growth. It can help address ingredient sourcing challenges, bring in new customers, and, with Rhode Island being an eco-friendly state, it’s a move that reflects local values. Let’s dig into three ways the plant-based food trend can directly impact growth for your Rhode Island restaurant.

1. Plant-based food is in demand

In the last few years, Rhode Island has experienced popular events like RI VegFest, new food halls like Plant City, and fine dining restaurants like Foglia gaining acceptance. People are curious about plant-based foods. They want to explore the taste, how it can help them diversify their protein consumption, and if it’s a flavor worth coming back for. Local restaurants have a genuine opportunity to capitalize on this curiosity by reimagining their menus and marketing. 

Creating new menus requires planning and may seem overwhelming at first, particularly if plant-forward hasn’t been a focus in the past, but, in many cases, the major ingredients needed are already in your kitchen or easy to source. Start by adding just a few plant-based choices to give your customers a taste of alternatives. Specials, anyone? From there, you’ll learn what’s selling and what’s not. 

2. Is the state ripe for sourcing plant-based options? Yes!

Farming is one of Rhode Island’s key industries which means proximity to fresh ingredients. Despite this access though, almost 90 percent of the state’s food is imported, especially its seafood, poultry, and beef. This is one reason local restaurants deeply felt the supply chain struggles during the pandemic.

A benefit of plant-based foods is more consistent ingredient sourcing. With foods like nut-based milks and cheese or alternative proteins like tempeh or seitan, the ingredients are often more readily available and found locally. For example, in Rhode Island alone, there are dozens of soybean and pea farms across the state, which would support recipe development for common protein replacements. Besides meat alternatives, access to robust produce like corn, potatoes, apples, and eggplant are within reach and support long-term food security efforts for the state. A win-win!

3. Food’s environmental impact is critical to the next generation 

Millennials and Gen Z are the driving force behind the plant-based movement and, while taste is an important factor, another driver is the impact on the environment. Being a coastal state, Rhode Island is already feeling the impacts of climate change like rising sea levels, warming air and water temperatures, and loss of biodiversity. It’s a key reason Rhode Islanders are adopting habits to ease these impacts, like making more sustainable food choices. 

Restaurants can take advantage of this trend by implementing more plant-based options in their menus and specials. Restaurants open to providing options that support the local community’s priorities and values, like plant-based foods, may enjoy smoother supply chains and attract a new generation of customers. 

To wrap it up

Restaurants around the world are stepping up to meet the demand for more plant-based menu items. By adding plant-based food menu options and considering the values of the community, Rhode Island restaurant owners have a real opportunity to build a new customer base and support their bottom line with smarter ingredient sourcing. The plant-based movement will continue to notably grow so it will be important for restaurants to adapt and provide options that bring extra seats to the table.

Maggie Longo is the restaurant and hospitality consultant for the Rhode Island Small Business Development Center (RISBDC) and offers restaurant owners support for menu creation, budgeting, employee development, and more. She loves the enthusiasm and energy that entrepreneurs and small business owners bring to the table, and feels in her element helping launch new ideas and initiatives. Interested in no-cost, one-on-one counseling through the RISBDC? Register here.