Supermarkets experiment with vegetarian foodservice

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When Mariano’s opened its 23rd retail location this summer, the Chicagoland retailer introduced customers to a new foodservice concept that featured some traditional favorites. There were three kinds of burgers, pasta with marina sauce, and pizza. There were soups, salads and a generous dessert menu. The chocolate chip cookies, one visiting blogger noted, were delicious.

Yet for all that was recognizable about the menu, there was one major distinction: All the food was vegan and vegetarian.

Supermarkets eager to keep pace with the restaurant industry through their foodservice offerings have noted consumers’ shift away from meat-heavy dishes. They’ve seen the rise of Meatless Mondays and flexitarian eaters, the demand for fresher, healthier food and the increasing skepticism over meat’s health and sustainability profile. According to the research firm Datamonitor, New York, 30% of consumers say they’re trying to limit their consumption of meat.

Like Roundy’s-owned Mariano’s and its new concept, known as VEG’d, many have responded to these trends with sophisticated, flavor-forward vegetarian and vegan meals. Wegmans Food Markets feature veggie bars with internationally inspired dishes like Tuscan-style roasted squash and kale. Whole Foods Market, which for years has offered vegetarian and vegan prepared foods, recently opened a vegetarian diner called The Counter at its new store in Columbia, Md. The menu includes robust choices like a guacamole cubano, smoked cauliflower cheesesteak and fried avocado tacos.

Eataly’s La Verdure serves a vegan and vegetarian menu in both Chicago and New York.

Eataly’s La Verdure serves a vegan and vegetarian menu in both Chicago and New York.

“It wasn’t all that long ago that if you called something ‘vegetarian,’ it must be lacking in some way,” said Mary Chapman, senior director of product innovation with Technomic, a Chicago-based restaurant consulting firm. “That’s not the case anymore.”

Indeed, vegetarian and vegan cuisine has moved beyond the bland greens-and-tofu image that defined it for so many years. Now, said Chapman, consumers can enjoy meatless alternatives to burgers, lasagna, pizza and other dishes without feeling like they have to compromise, or necessarily identify, as a vegan or vegetarian.

Many foodservice-focused supermarkets have embraced this idea by offering veggie burgers, noodle bowls and other popular meatless options. Some, like Eataly, have gone a step further. The Mario Batali-owned gourmet market, with locations in New York and Chicago, features a suite of in-store restaurants including Le Verdure, which serves epicurean vegan and vegetarian fare. The menu includes dishes like gnocchi alla romana and fritto misto that celebrate vegetables not just as an alternative to meat options, but as a distinct culinary experience.

A polenta entree from Eataly’s vegetarian restaurant Le Verdure.

A polenta entree from Eataly’s vegetarian restaurant Le Verdure.

“We have a very strong base of regulars who are not  vegetarians or vegans,” said Alex Pilas, executive chef of Eataly USA. “We provide an alternative to many who want a break from a heavy, animal-based diet.”

The approach mirrors that of the restaurant industry. According to Technomic’s MenuMonitor service, the number of items listed as “vegetarian” has increased 15% over the past two years. Dishes listed as “vegan” have grown 41%, though on a much smaller scale.

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