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With 42% of global consumers now calling themselves flexitarians or “part-time vegans,” restaurants of all sizes and specialties are embracing plant-based options. i-Stock

As customers emerge from their COVID-19 hibernations to meet at their favorite lunch and dinner spots, they’re leaning into healthy and lighter fare but also want new and bold flavors.

“We expect to see operators release LTOs featuring bold beverages, layering flavors and textures that deliver an elevated beverage experience that is not easily replicated at home,” Marie-Claude Laprade, vice president of foodservice strategy and customer marketing for Rich Products Corp., a provider of wholesale food products and ingredients, told Fast Casual in an interview.

Planet Smoothie, owned by Arizona-based Kahala Brands, is already on board, introducing three smoothies — Fiji Island Breeze, Dragon Fruit Lemon Splash and Rio Berry Bliss — bursting with hydration, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals, according to a company press release.

“These smoothies are packed with antioxidants, hydration and essential vitamins and minerals to keep your body nourished in the summer heat,” Nicole Butcher, director of marketing at Kahala Brands, said in the release.

Like Planet Smoothie, California-based Nekter Juice bar is also getting into the healthful and spring spirit, debuting a Pineapple Matcha smoothie, which has cashew nut milk, Tenzo matcha powder, vanilla whey protein, pineapple and agave.

As the popularity of matcha continues to surge around the globe, the 150-unit chain is bringing the popular green tea powder to the masses with a welcoming flavor profile, according to a company press release.

Nekter has created the Pineapple Matcha Smoothie.

“With consumer health and wellness continuing to reign supreme in the COVID-era, we’re hopeful this new menu item provides another refreshing option for those looking to get a jump start on their spring and summer wellness journey,” Alexis Schulze, co-founder and chief visionary officer, said in the release

“Adapting to consumer trends is part of our DNA. By expanding our smoothie line with matcha as a feature ingredient paired with the sweet and delicious flavor of pineapple, we’re creating a whole new way to stay energized and refreshed with Nékter’s all-natural, immunity-boosting ingredients.”

Although its focus isn’t so much on the trend of more “healthful options” as it is on the layering of flavors and textures, PJ’s Coffee of New Orleans has brought back two of its popular beverages — the Southern Wedding Cake Iced Latte and the Southern Wedding Cake Velvet Ice. It’s also debuted the Southern Wedding Cake Sweet Cold Foam.

“Southern Wedding Cake is one of our most popular blends,” Felton Jones, roastmaster at PJ’s Coffee,” said in a company press release. “The addition of sweet cold foam is a new way to enhance the already-rich almond and vanilla flavors that our customers know and love.”

All are available now through June 30.

PJ’s Coffee of New Orleans is bringing back two beverages — Southern Wedding Cake Iced Latte and Southern Wedding Cake Velvet Ice — and is debuting the Southern Wedding Cake Sweet Cold Foam

Plant-based options are coming in hot

With 42% of global consumers now calling themselves flexitarians or “part-time vegans,” restaurants of all sizes and specialties are embracing plant-based options, Laprade told FastCasual.

“We saw that oat milk was the fastest growth category in the retail channel last year so we are expecting to see dairy alternatives featured in various menu items like ice cream and cheese,” she said.

Baskin-Robbins, for example, is giving customers a dairy-free option May’s flavor of the month — Strawberry Streusel — which has an oat milk base.

“We’re a brand that’s all about creating new flavor experiences and with so many people living plant-based or flexitarian lifestyles today, we couldn’t be more excited to launch our new oat milk-based option,” Shannon Blakely, VP of marketing and culinary, said in a company press release. “We’re so passionate about this new base and Flavor of the Month as it’s not just an evolution of our offerings, but a sign of our passion and commitment to creating what’s ‘next’ in frozen desserts.”

The flavor comes just two years after the chain launched its first non-dairy flavors. In addition to May’s Flavor of the Month, the brand is planning to release additional oat milk-based flavors later this year.

Johnny Rockets, a 300-unit chain known for its burgers and shakes, is also taking notice of customer desire for meat- and dairy-free options. It recently added the Impossible Burger as well as Craig’s Vegan Shakes and dairy-free Daiya Cheddar Style slices to the menu.

“The Johnny Rockets environment and menu deliver a piece of nostalgic Americana at locations around the globe,” Andy Wiederhorn, FAT Brands CEO, the chain’s parent company, said in a press release. “While that will always be the most evident and fun part of the Johnny Rockets experience, we also acknowledge the future, which is plant-based. FAT Brands’ longstanding relationships with Impossible Foods, Daiya, and Craig’s Vegan has proven that these items integrate seamlessly into classic American menus, and we’re very happy to partner with brands that are centered around providing high-quality and great tasting products like we are.

The chain’s sister brand, Yalla Mediterranean, known for many plant-based options in California, Illinois and Texas, isn’t letting Johnny’s get all the attention, however. It’s spreading its love of hummus with three flavors: Spicy Red Pepper Harissa Hummus, Chermoula Hummus and Beet Hummus.

“Hummus is a cornerstone of both Mediterranean cuisine and our fantastic menu at Yalla. American consumers have truly begun to embrace the diversity and health benefits of Mediterranean foods, so we’re excited to showcase just a few ways to take a delicious dish to the next level,” Wiederhorn said in the release.

Each flavor is available through Aug. 31

Wanna cookie?
Although they step away from the “healthful halo” trend of the season, cookies are as popular as always with customers.

Gleaned from an analysis of cookie-related online and offline visits, Topdata, a consumer insights company, revealed that Americans’ cookie appetites have risen 25% during the pandemic. Those findings also sync with Topdata’s results from a 1,000-person survey finding that 95% of Americans ate a cookie at least every month, and one in five people admitted to consuming more than three per day.

“Beyond classic baked and fresh, gluten-free, vegetarian, vegan, and all-natural have shown impressive growth on fast casual menus in recent years,” Laprade told Fast Casual. “Premium descriptors, such as homemade, gourmet, dipped, baked fresh daily, topped and loaded are all trending within fast casual cookies. Chocolate chip cookies remain the top cookie offering, followed by oatmeal raisin, sugar (which has grown triple digits over the past decade,) chocolate chunk and butter cookies.”

California-based Yogurtland checked off both the cookie and oat milk trends in March when it debuted the Plant-Based Cinnamon Oatmeal Cookie.

“As we continue to look at flavor trends and sustain our momentum within the plant-based category, oat milk is something we are proud to add into our menu mix,” Yogurtland Senior Marketing Manager Brittany Knollmiller said in a company press release.

Editor’s note: Part 2 of this series will include more LTOs from the fast casual industry.

Source: Bold and light: Post-pandemic menu trends revealed| 2021 Trends | Fast Casual