Caterers are offering more meat-free menu items, satisfying the sprouting number of vegans, vegetarians and flexitarians
By Sara Perez Webber
There’s no doubt about it—demand is mushrooming for plant-based cuisine.
After a record year of growth in 2020, U.S. retail sales of plant-based foods grew 6.2% in 2021, according to data released by the Plant Based Foods Association, The Good Food Institute and SPINS. That increase boosted the total plant-based market value to an all-time high of $7.4 billion.
So, who’s driving the demand for these foods? For one, vegans—those who eschew all animal products—who comprise 3% of consumers, according to a Packaged Facts survey conducted in August 2020. Vegetarians, who don’t eat meat, make up 5% of consumers, according to the same survey, while more than a third of consumers identify as flexitarian—they eat meat and other animal products in moderation while regularly mixing up their diet with vegan or vegetarian meals.
Caterers—particularly those who specialize in plant-based cuisine—confirm the trend.
“There were a lot of people who told me I was crazy to establish a catering company only focused on plant-based cuisine, but the demand has grown and will only continue to grow,” says Amelia Irene Steed, owner of Amelia Irene Catering and Event Design, based in Raleigh, North Carolina. “Vegan cuisine is not a phase; it is here to stay.”
To find out more about the plant-based dining trend, CFE spoke with four caterers from across the country whose menus feature a flourishing variety of plant-based cuisine.
Elizabeth’s Gone Raw
The Catering Company of Washington
“Opening this restaurant was my way to heal‚ says Elizabeth Petty about Elizabeth’s Gone Raw, the vegan restaurant in Washington, D.C., she founded in 2010. “It was inspired by a lot of passion and a lot of love.
Petty˛ who runs The Catering Company of Washington out of the same townhouse that’s home to Elizabeth’s Gone Raw˛ was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009, which led her to changing her lifestyle and her diet. She’d owned her catering company for nearly two decades by then. “It did occur to me to sell the company and do something else, but then I realized it was an incredible opportunity to heal and give back‚ she says. “My philosophy from the get-go was, ‘How do I take plant-based cuisine to another level, so that the community sees the potential for this type of cuisine?
Petty was inspired by what she learned about following a plant-based diet during a stay at the Hippocrates Health Institute in West Palm Beach, Florida.
“I had a great education there and saw people start to heal themselves‚ she says. “People said they’d never felt that good in their entire lives.
Initially, Elizabeth’s Gone Raw served a raw vegan menu and was open one night a month. To broaden the appeal, Petty changed the menu so it’s not completely raw (though they will serve a 100% raw menu with 24 hours’ notice). On Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, Elizabeth’s Gone Raw is open, serving a six-course vegan tasting menu˛ which changes every two months. Guests can also sit at the bar and order small plates, such as vegan caviar, a “super popular‚ option with algae oil made in-house by Executive Chef Francisco Hernandez˛ and banana blossom calamari.
As she walks the restaurant floor, Petty hears customers say, “I had no idea that plant-based food could taste like this‚ and “How do I go about making changes? She shares her experiences and knowledge with anyone who asks.
While The Catering Company isn’t completely vegan, “the amount of vegan catering that we’re doing far exceeds what we’re doing with meat‚ says Petty, who notes that she has longtime loyal clients who aren’t vegan. “My hope is one day we will be a 100 percent vegan catering company.
Petty says she’s seen “tremendous change in the last 12 years‚ with customers becoming more committed to plant-based lifestyles and many making tweaks to their diets˛ from big to small˛ for health reasons, as well as concerns about the ethical treatment of animals and the environment.
Says Petty: “Most people recognize that saving the environment is critical. And the more people who recognize this, the more this industry is going to grow.
Vegan Catering NYC
When catering events for her New York-based company, Voila Caterers, Nadine Chevreux always advises clients to include vegan dishes on the menu. “Guests would complain if there weren’t any, she says.
As she and her husband Alain˛ who also own French restaurant Cafä du Soleil on New York’s Upper West Side˛ watched demand grow for plant-based cuisine, they decided to open Vegan Catering NYC, exclusively serving vegan and vegetarian menu items.
Launched three years ago, things started out slowly due to COVID. But when restrictions eased, business blossomed, with orders rolling in for house parties, corporate events, small weddings and memorials.
Chevreux says she’s noticed that vegan cuisine is appealing to an older clientele. “At the beginning, it was the young kids [who wanted it], but now it’s people my age, in their 50s and 60s, she says. “It’s almost like a moral duty for people our age. It was a trend at the beginning, but now people who ask for it are very serious.
While many are motivated to follow a vegan diet because they want to lessen their environmental impact, improve their health or prevent cruelty to animals, Chevreux points out another factor influencing clients’ choices. “Meat is becoming so expensive that people are automatically eating more vegetables‚ she says.
As a chef, Chevreux enjoys the challenge of cooking without animal products. “I feel I can be so much more creative with vegan food‚ she says. “It really bursts with flavor. I think the palates of vegans are more sophisticated than non-vegans’.
Chevreux says she’s surprised to see interest in vegan cuisine growing even in her native France. “Our origins are butter! she says with a laugh.
And she sees no end in sight to the growing demand for vegan catering. “It’s so colorful when you do it on a buffet it’s like a painting, she says. “It’s good for the eye, it’s good for the diet˛ it’s all plus, plus, plus!
Amelia Irene Catering and Event Design
When she launched her catering and event business in Washington, D.C., in 2006, Chef Amelia Irene Steed didn’t focus on plant-based cuisine. But after a cancer diagnosis in 2014, she returned to the vegan diet she had adopted on and off since her 20s to help her body heal. Steed also attended training in health-supportive cuisine at the National Gourmet Institute in New York.
“From my prior experience in the events industry, I knew there was a significant need in the catering industry for vegan caterers, says Steed. “I personally was tired of going to weddings and special events, and the only option I was given was vegetable pasta primavera or a random tofu dish!
Steed made it her mission to provide vegan dishes for events that were the stars of the show rather than background players. She relaunched Amelia Irene in 2018 in North Carolina, emphasizing plant-based catering options. For clients who wish to accommodate guests who aren’t vegan or vegetarian, Steed offers some entrees with wild-caught seafood and organic free-range poultry. She also provides traditional caterers with vegan and vegetarian meals.
“My clients range from couples who are both vegan to those who are vegan-curious to others who simply want to have great options for their vegan guests! says Steed.
Through Amelia Irene’s sister company, Lotus Lane Culinary, Steed offers cooking classes featuring plant-based and health-supportive cuisine, and she sells vegan sweets and her curated spice blends at farmers markets. “My goal is to ensure healthy food is accessible to all in every aspect of life, she says.
And she enjoys the reaction from guests who aren’t used to plant-based eating: “I have found that non-vegan guests at events are pleasantly surprised and eat more than the vegans!
Big Delicious Planet
While Chicago-based Big Delicious Planet (BDP) isn’t an exclusively vegan or vegetarian catering company, it serves up vegetables galore, thanks to its bountiful farm.
“I started the Big Delicious Planet Urban Farm in 2012 with eight raised beds, and since then it has expanded to 77 raised beds on three city lots‚ says Heidi Moorman Coudal, owner and culinary director. “We grow dozens of varieties of vegetables, fruits, herbs and flowers. In 2021, we harvested nearly 6,000 pounds of produce. We also have three beehives that produce hundreds of pounds of honey each year. We incorporate everything that we produce into the menus for the weddings and events we cater.
BDP also showcases its daily harvest in its popular summer pop-up dinners. On Wednesday evenings from mid-June until the end of September, BDP presents its annual Urban Farm Dinner Series. Each four-course, farm-to-table themed dinner has a distinct menu and style, emphasizing BDP’s home-grown produce.
The company’s dedication to hyper-local farming is part of its dedication to sustainability. As a result of its environmentally friendly practices˛ such as using sustainable geothermal energy to power heating and cooling in the building, composting all food scraps and compostable paper goods, and donating all used vegetable oil to a biodiesel service˛ Big Delicious Planet has earned the title of “Greenest Caterer in America‚ from the Green Restaurant Association.
While BDP’s menus are heavily plant-based, Coudal says that strictly vegan or vegetarian events account for approximately 10% of business. “The majority of our clients want to offer a meat, fish and vegetarian/vegan option to their guests so that everyone is happy, she says.
Coudal has noticed people becoming more open to plant-based meals. “What’s changed over the years is that most people don’t feel the need to eat meat every day of the week‚ she says. “It might not be a conscious decision, but they eat a vegetarian pizza one night, a vegan salad the next night and a hamburger the night after that.