The State Of The Plate In Restaurants Across The U.S.

Written together with Amy Myrdal Miller, MS, RDN, FAND

We all recognize restaurants suffered during the early days of the pandemic. Mandated closures across the country, limits on indoor dining, diners unwilling to jeopardize their safety, and other challenges had a huge impact on the industry in 2020. The National Restaurant Association (NRA) estimates that U.S. restaurants lost more than $240 billion in sales. By the end of 2020, more than 110,000 restaurants closed permanently.

Today, as the industry is struggling with labor challenges among other hurdles, all of us in the produce industry are hoping the impact they had on fruit and vegetable consumption between 2015 and 2020 continues. The PBH 2020 State of the Plate report showed us that one-quarter of vegetables were eaten in restaurants. And while overall vegetable consumption declined between 2015 and 2020, consumption frequency in restaurants increased. What surprises many is that these increases are attributed to quick-service restaurants (QSRs).

Too many people associate QSRs with poor quality food, yet our colleagues across the restaurant industry have been on a long-term, stealth-like mission to improve the healthfulness of their menu choices. Plant-forward menu strategies have been adopted by many large foodservice companies and brands. PBH is proud to see companies like Taco Bell call out vegetarian options on their menus in the new Veggie Cravings section of their menu. And, of course, these offerings are not just for vegetarians but rather everyone wanting to feel the veggie plant pride. (This great work is due to the hard work and dedication of two Have A Plant® Ambassadors who work for Taco Bell, Missy Schaaphok, Senior Manager of Global Nutrition & Sustainability and Marissa Thiry, Senior Nutrition Specialist for North America.)

This kind of positive marketing for vegetables leads to positive emotions that lead to sustained behavior changes. Telling people something is good for them doesn’t work, but helping inspire emotions (i.e., craving) that drive behaviors can inspire long-term habits that are good for public health as well as the fruit and vegetable industry.

One change noted in recent research from Datassential is the smaller size of menus today compared to the pre-pandemic days of early 2020. Their research shows us that, on average, menus contain 10.2% fewer options today. Nearly 60% of all restaurant menus are smaller today than they were one year ago. But one-third of restaurants have menus with more selections today. Appetizers showed the most shrink across all restaurant categories.

What is not surprising is that menus at QSRs restaurants have shrunk the least. Some had very limited menus to begin with, but all QSRs with drive-thrus did very well during in 2020 compared to other segments of the industry.

Prior to the pandemic, one in three Americans was eating food from a QSR every day. Many assume lower-income people are more likely to eat at QSRs, but the exact opposite is true. Higher percentages of higher-income individuals eat at QSRs more often than lower-income Americans. Nearly half of all QSR patrons on a given day are between 20 and 30 years of age, an age group critically important to PBH. Our State of the Plate report shows Millennials (people born between 1981 and 1996) are more likely than other generations to not eat any fruits and vegetables on a given day, and that Gen Z (1997-2019) is the only segment with declining frequency of annual fruit-eating occasions.

We know two of the biggest motivators for eating fruits and vegetables are: 1) if it’s quick and easy to get and/or 2) it’s a favorite. If that quick, easy-to-get choice, that is also a favorite and comes from a QSR, should we be shaming or celebrating that choice?

All of us who want to increase fruit and vegetable consumption across all income categories should celebrate every foodservice operation that is putting more fruits and vegetables on menus in ways that drive demand, cravings and ultimately, consumption. #haveaplant

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