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Plant-Based Offerings on the Rise at Arenas

With the nation’s taste palate trending toward more plant-based offerings, arena operators and concessionaires are responding by upping their games with new vegan, vegetarian and flexitarian menu items.

Tonight, for example, the Dallas Stars (NHL) are featuring a “Vegan Night” promotion at American Airlines Center, where $25 gets you a game ticket and a voucher for a free plant-based sandwich at the arena Valor Bar & Burger stand: a Vegan Brat made with Beyond Sausage, Beyond Burger, or a Reuben featuring Unreal Corned Beef. (Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks, is an investor in Mrs. Goldfarb’s Unreal Deli, creator of Unreal Corned Beef.)

Then on Sunday, concessionaire Levy will showcase vegan/vegetarian/flexitarian options at the NBA All-Star Game at Chicago’s United Center.

It’s an apt time to showcase plant-based offerings, which is certainly one of the hot food trends across the United States. As more Americans give up meat and dairy, the food industry has responded with a slew of new products that provide the taste and feel of meat but are created with plants like beets, chickpeas and more. You’ve undoubtedly seen products like Impossible Burgers and brats and burgers from Beyond pop up on menus everywhere, joining established products like black-bean burgers, seitan chicken and mock duck. The Disney theme parks in Florida and California rolled out plant-based options at every dining location, including hotel restaurants, in October 2019.

So, it’s no surprise arena operators and concessionaires are joining the trend. Patty Coleman, Director of Nutrition and Wellness for Levy, has been monitoring the rise of plant-based arena offerings and explained how the concessions giant has approached the challenge.

When considering plant-based offerings, it’s important to note that this isn’t strictly a monolithic movement. Vegetarians eschew meat but may eat dairy and eggs; vegans will avoid all animal products. A flexitarian may avoid meat most of the time but occasionally eat it; a pescatarian will eat fish but not meat. Addressing that wide range of tastes involves both meat and dairy substitutes like the aforementioned Impossible Burger and a plant-based butter and cheese, or via products not designed to mimic meat, like a black-bean burger or almond milk. Soy plays a large role across the board, whether it’s a seitan chicken patty or soy milk.

According to Coleman, Levy’s plant-based offerings are a mix of both approaches. “We have plant-based burgers, but we also have lighter vegetarian street tacos, made without a plant-based protein,” she said, pointing to demand for new veggie-forward dishes across the board. That includes a buffalo cauliflower wrap or veggies served in a spinach wrap. Some dishes can be offered both as vegetarian and vegan, with the vegan version sporting a cheese substitute.

The offerings are not the same across every market served by Levy. At the NBA All-Star Game, for example, a vegan hot chocolate will be sold, a drink that might not play too well in warmer-weather climates.

“We do a lot of research to find out the taste and preferences in each market, to offer unique products,” Coleman said. Of the venues managed by Levy, the top three selling the most plant-based dishes are Dodger Stadium (home of MLB’s Los Angeles Dodgers), Mercedes-Benz Stadium (home of the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons and MLS’s Atlanta United) and Wrigley Field (home of MLB’s Chicago Cubs). But the product mix isn’t the same across the board: there is more interest in strictly plant-based offerings in Dodger Stadium than at other venues—a tribute, no doubt, to that healthy California lifestyle.

Coleman expects growth in sales of plant-based concessions to continue; for example, between 2018 and 2019 Levy doubled its purchases in veggies and plant-based meats. And if the offerings for Sunday’s All-Star Game are any indication, those adhering to a plant-based diet won’t need to compromise when it comes to quality. Arguably the taste of plant-based burgers and sausages/brats/hot dogs is equal to meat-based versions, and the famous Honey Butter Fried Chicken can be purchased in a tofu version. At the All-Star Game, Chicago restauranteur Stephanie Izard of Girl & The Goat and Top Chef fame, will be showcasing vegetarian dishes, including veggie tacos.

“Going back, I was a vegetarian when I was 12, 25 years ago. I have seen a huge evolution in what’s available. People expect a higher quality product.

“They’re not going to want a product that’s less than what they get in meat.”

Photo courtesy Unreal Deli.

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