U.S. restaurant chains made progress in adding new plant-based items to their menus last year, with a focus on crafting new dishes that fit with their branding and made sense alongside their more traditional options.

Fifty-eight of the biggest U.S. restaurant chains boasted at least one plant-based dish on the menu last year, up from 55 in 2018, according to an annual survey by the Good Food Institute.

While only three more added their first plant-based dishes in 2019, the bigger news was that chains that already had plant-based dishes added more, GFI Foodservice and Supply Chain Manager Zak Weston said.

Carl’s Jr. launched more Beyond Meat-based items and the success of Burger King’s Impossible Whopper spurred the chain to announce an Impossible Whopper Jr. and a breakfast sandwich.

Panera Bread has outlined plans to grow its plant-based offerings from the current 25% of the overall menu to 50%, and it will offer at least one vegetarian item in each category on the menu by next year, the company said in January.

While some chains including McDonald’s and Chick-fil-A are taking more time to evaluate whether plant-based items make sense for them system-wide, there’s data indicating that restaurant chains with plant-based items are spurring foodservice demand for more plant-based meats.

Research commissioned by GFI from NPD Group shows that sales of plant-based meats from major distributors to U.S. foodservice companies grew 37% last year, as more outlets expanded their menus.

In addition to restaurants, that includes other foodservice operations like the corporate cafes, campus dining halls and assisted living facility dining rooms operated by companies like Sodexo, which has also ramped up its plant-based offerings in recent years.

Chains scored highest if they offered multiple plant-based dishes that are marketed to appeal to mainstream customers, which means stressing the plant-based nature and tasty flavors without using words like “vegan,” “vegetarian” or “meatless,” Weston said.

“Chains won points for completely plant-based items and partial points for dishes that can be made 100% plant-based,” he said. “They also got points for calling out protein content, because a lot of consumers don’t associate plants with protein, and we awarded points for marketing, signage and promotion outside of stores.”

Burger King was the most improved chain in terms of plant-based offerings from 2018 to 2019, the report revealed, followed by sibling chains Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s, Del Taco, Qdoba, Denny’s and Panda Express.

Last year was the year of the plant-based burger, he said, and growing demand is driving restaurants to expand the use of plant-based meat alternatives to new categories including tacos, breakfast sandwiches and pizza, he said.

And, as restaurants grow more comfortable with the idea of touting their plant-based offerings, they’re doing it in different ways that work for their diverse brands.

Taco Bell has long boasted a vegetarian menu that can be made vegan and it’s growing those options rather than partnering with Beyond Meat or Impossible Foods to add a name-brand plant-based meat alternative.

Chipotle Mexican Grill is also eschewing plant-based meats while offering vegetarian and vegan options made with beans or Sofritas, a proprietary blend of spicy marinated tofu.

Panera’s plan reflects that brand’s ongoing focus on clean ingredients and dishes free from artificial ingredients. In contrast, Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s offer plant-based versions of their indulgent quickserve burgers designed to appeal to brand fans who may be looking to eat less meat for reasons other than health.

“It just goes to show there’s not just one way to do plant-based,” Weston said. “Plant-based isn’t a silver bullet. It has to fit with your brand, your values and your customer base, so it will look different in different concepts.”

There are as many ways to do plant-based as there are consumers who crave different meals for different reasons at different times.

“Consumers seem to value taste and cost – just like on the animal meat side, there’s a spectrum on the plant-based side too,” Weston said. “If someone’s focused on nutrition and they want to have a salad, they should have a salad. But if the trade-off is giving up steak for a bowl of lentils, that won’t work.”

That’s where plant-based meat alternatives from a growing number of brands can come in handy.

“If you’re thinking of a beef burger, reach for a plant-based burger instead,” he said.

Marketing is key to promoting plant-based menu items, and convincing mainstream consumers to try the plant-based alternatives works when chains put the options on the same menu with their more traditional items, Weston said.

“It shows this is for me – I come here and I expect delicious food, and I will have the same experience with the plant-based burger,” he said.

Chains also do well when they extend their core branding to the new items, like Burger King’s Impossible Whopper and Carl’s Jr.’s Beyond Famous Star, and they can put them on the menu in the same ways on the menu, in social media and on kiosks and signage.

“Whatever their fans love, they can run with that,” he said. “It’s not rocket science, just common sense, and it’s a huge growth opportunity.”