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Sylvain Charlebois is a professor in Food Distribution and Policy at Dalhousie University

With consumers rapidly changing their eating habits and moving away from meat, restaurants are struggling to get a good handle on the shift. According to a recent study by Dalhousie University, nearly 1 in 5 Canadians have decided to either reduce the amount of meat they consume or have outright eliminated it from their diets. When you also consider that 63 per cent of the 6.4 million Canadians who purposely restrict meat are aged 38 or under, the economic influence of the anti-meat movement is clear. For steakhouses, this is a scary thought.

But the food-service industry is showing it can adapt and be successful in an environment where demand for meat is becoming more fragmented. One reason for that fragmentation? The growing popularity of flexitarianism. Flexitarians have consciously decided to reduce their meat consumption, but only on a part-time basis. More than 3.5 million Canadians consider themselves flexitarians, or what some may call conscious carnivores.

In fast food, A&W’s Beyond Meat Burger is a good example of how restaurants are responding to this challenge. The item sold out nationwide just a few weeks after its release and was reportedly selling better, at some outlets, than the chain’s iconic Teen Burger. Its success is due to the principle of normalizing the offer. The Beyond Meat Burger is just part of the regular menu, and tastes almost the same as other top sellers at the restaurant.

Even McDonald’s is adjusting. Anyone can order a meatless Big Mac: A bun, lettuce, tomato, sauce and that’s it. No patty. Shocking when you think of how McDonald’s had positioned itself for decades as a leading ambassador of the Canadian beef industry.

In fine dining, more restaurants are adding vegetarian and vegan options to their menus. Some cities such as Toronto are seeing more and more vegan restaurants opening. Fairs, festivals – hardly a week goes by without hearing about some event where a meatless world is showcased. Little more than 20 years ago, veganism was almost frowned upon. Today, it is often celebrated.

Given that so many Canadians are restricting meat in their diets, odds are that at least one person in every social group or family is a vegan or vegetarian. Menus are much more inclusive as a result. Restaurants are paying more attention thanks, in part, to flexitarians. That group, most of them boomers, is really the bridge between the mass food market and the devoted meatless crowd.

People become flexitarian for a variety of reasons. Usually it is out of concern for the environmental footprint of the livestock industry and/or animal welfare, or one’s own health. Or perhaps flexitarians want to save a few dollars by opting for a cheaper protein alternative. It’s not surprising to see many boomers become flexitarians as they have shown for many years that their generation is very much about choice and keeping options open. Some may even say that boomers, with flexitarianism, are hedging against their own guilt complex. Who knows? But generational pressures are also real. Many flexitarians likely have children who are vegans or vegetarians, or may have friends who are not eating meat. Regardless, a greater number of consumers are accepting the reality that food diversity is the new normal, especially when it comes to protein sources.

Serving flexitarians is obviously not onerous for restaurants, since it means their menus can feature both meat and non-meat options. What restaurants may want to consider, though, are successes like that of the Beyond Meat Burger. The A&W offering is aimed at not only clear-cut vegetarians and vegans, but also those who simply want to eat less meat. We should not be surprised to see an increasing number of meat-free options in the future because of this shift. This is only the beginning.

Vegans, as opposed to vegetarians or flexitarians, are a different story. Their diet is more restrictive, which makes it more difficult for restaurants to manage. They appear to visit mostly vegan restaurants and may not venture to establishments that are not utterly committed to their lifestyle. A visit anywhere else can end in disappointment. But the number of vegan restaurants is also increasing, in order to serve a growing segment of diners looking for a true animal-free fix. That group includes vegans, of course, but also vegetarians and – you guessed it – flexitarians.

In food service, the business case to sell more vegetable proteins is very strong. Lentils, chickpeas and pulses in general are much less expensive than beef, pork or chicken, at least for now. Seeing how things unfold for the meat industry will be interesting.

For beef, pork and chicken producers, the future remains bright. Different, but bright. The meat industry will just need to learn that their products, as a protein source, cohabit with a much larger range of alternative sources of protein. Besides, almost 83 per cent of Canadians are still unconditionally committed to meat consumption. But the mentality that meat is the only protein choice is changing. It needs a different spin, and the food-service industry appears to be catching on.

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