November, 2006

Research Perspective and Comments & Analysis

Meet The Flexitarians

As part of our commitment to uncover leading-edge trends driving consumer demand for fresh produce, Produce Marketing Association recently commissioned Opinion Dynamics Corporation to assess the state of U.S. vegetarianism and vegetarians’ attitudes about fruits and vegetables in particular. We defined a vegetarian as someone who doesn’t eat beef, pork, poultry, fish, shellfish or animal products of any kind as part of their regular diet.

We also studied “flexitarians” — consumers defined as flexible with their diets, who eat a less rigid but still mostly vegetarian diet with meat consumed only occasionally. Our findings were quite interesting and relevant.

Flexitarians are increasingly flexing their eating power around the table. Fourteen percent of households surveyed had at least one flexitarian. Of that sub-group, 32 percent of respondents reported the level of flexitarian eating had increased in the past few years.

But don’t dismiss vegetarians. While only 4 percent of households reported at least one vegetarian, 29 percent of that group reported their level of vegetarian eating has increased. I recall the impact on our family eating patterns when our son Gregg, then a vegetarian, spent a summer at home, and we found our dining habits shifting to more vegetarian meals as we experimented with family meals.

Combined, these two groups — vegetarians and flexitarians — account for nearly one in five households, a potential customer base that should command the attention of all produce marketers. That large percentages of both groups report such high increases in fruit and vegetable eating in recent years is notable. How many consumer goods marketers can point to increases of this magnitude?

We, as produce marketers, should spend more time focusing on what we can do to improve the eating experience of these, our best, customers. Even more important than their sheer numbers, these consumers routinely (and increasingly they tell us) put our products at the center of their plates, making them very important customers indeed.

We should pay attention to feeding these vital customers — literally and figuratively. Customers tell us they want attractive pricing and promotions, high-quality goods, product information and usage ideas, such as recipes for home. Because they focus so much on produce, they need our assistance in bringing variety to their eating experience.

What motivates vegetarians and flexitarians to consume a diet so dependent on fruits and vegetables? Better health and nutrition is especially important. Eighty-seven percent of vegetarians, 83 percent of flexitarians and 62 percent of other consumers rate fruits and vegetables as “extremely important” to a healthful diet. It simply makes sense, therefore, to target an already receptive audience with our marketing than risk having our messages and money fall on deaf ears.

The basics of Marketing 101 stress the value of keeping and growing the share of business from the customers one already has. And while existing vegetarians may be eating close to as much fruit and vegetables as they are able, the growth in the number of flexitarians bodes well for making inroads into old habits. The more we can move people from the ranks of flexitarians to those of vegetarians, the bigger will be our impact on growing produce consumption.

The repertoire of fruits and vegetables among vegetarians and flexitarians is not as broad as one might think. For example, berry consumption is not nearly as high relative to other basic items among these groups as I would have expected. We have an opportunity to expand the variety of fruits and vegetables our most loyal and dedicated customers eat. In addition, the opportunity to get vegetarians to trade up to higher-value produce items should not be missed. New varieties, flavors, sauces, marinades, other add-ons, have great potential in driving the vegetarian consumer to higher-value produce and related items.

During a recent three-day conference I attended at the Culinary Institute of America campus at Greystone in California’s Napa Valley, I was struck by the magnificent flavors this country’s top chefs impart to simple produce items. Watching them sauté vegetables in a variety of flavored oils, marinades and sauces, I got an appreciation of how staid my own approach to veggies has been. The fruit relishes and salsas they concocted made my mouth water.

As leading culinarians from leading university dining operations around the country talked about the growth of vegetarianism among students, I realized that while health is clearly important to vegetarians and flexitarians, we can never forget the three most important motivators for repeat eating: taste first, taste second and taste third.

We also must work to ensure these customers have their demands met in all the places they buy and consume food. I expect both vegetarians and flexitarians like to eat out as much as anyone, and the foodservice industry increasingly offers more vegetarian or otherwise plant-centric dishes. With about half the average family’s food dollars spent on food prepared away from home, the produce industry needs to make sure our foods are well represented on foodservice menus, as I’ve recently written in this space. That’s a win-win for us and the foodservice operator to whom our foods bring the added value of lowering food costs and dialing up flavors to meet customers’ demands — while also boosting dishes’ eye appeal.

Get to know the flexitarians and vegetarians well — they are a growing group of old friends who are important new customers. Best of all, with younger ones coming aboard at an increasing pace, this group will be around for a long, long time.

Retail Weakness

Before we analyze the subject further, here are some questions to consider:

• Do vegetarians eat more fresh produce than people who eat meat? Do flexitarians?

• Do flexitarians actually eat less meat than other people, or do they just perceive themselves that way?

• Of those people who identify themselves as vegetarian or flexitarian, are these typically fairly permanent characterizations, or is vegetarianism best thought of as a phase or experiment many people go through at some point in their lives?

• What motivates vegetarianism? Is it about health, a philosophical aversion to hurting animals or peer pressure among certain groups that this is the cool thing to do?

• Is vegetarianism an important value? To what degree would vegetarians refuse to marry meat-eaters? Do vegetarians want to instill vegetarianism in their children?

Some of this may seem obvious, but it is not. One can be a vegetarian and eat loads of french fries, pizza and chocolate cake. “Mainstream” vegetarians do eat some animal products (dairy, eggs and honey); vegans, who shun these categories, would forego the pizza and chocolate cake most Americans love.

We don’t actually know the answers to any of these questions, and they point to a need for deeper market research to help inform the trade’s new product development and marketing efforts.

For foodservice, having some vegetarian options is a no-brainer. Much has been written about the “veto power” of one diner to determine where a group will eat out. It is just silly for a restaurant to not offer vegetarian options — especially since even omnivores sometimes just want a vegetarian dish.

It has always been possible for vegetarians to piece together a meal. Even in a steak house — that most anti-vegetarian of establishments — it is usually possible to start with a lettuce wedge or tomato-and-onion salad and then put together a vegetable plate with a baked potato, asparagus, mushrooms, etc.

What has changed over time is that vegetarianism, rather than being viewed as an oddity, has become socially acceptable, even virtuous. As a result, many restaurants have institutionalized options for vegetarians so they aren’t second-class citizens having to “piece together” a meal.

And, the growth in ethnic foods, especially Asian dishes — many of which are vegetarian to begin with — has made it easier for restaurants to offer appealing vegetarian options.

When it comes to retail, most good supermarkets have recognized the growth in the number of people looking to avoid eating meat and have instituted fairly substantial soy-based vegetarian centers.

One retail produce weakness is nobody is selling on a national basis fresh-cut or prepared vegetarian entrées in produce departments, although in some stores you can get them in the deli or prepared foods section.

Bryan pinpoints what has long been problematic for the produce industry when he describes his mouth-watering experience at the Culinary Institute. My family did a trip to Tuscany and found the same thing. We stayed in a villa where there was a cooking school, and the chef transformed things like zucchini blossoms into sublime specialties.

Although it is nice to know this is possible, it is sufficiently difficult to achieve these results that it may not rebound to the advantage of the industry. Restaurants with real chefs — places like Chez Panisse in Berkeley — already do masterful things with fresh produce. But who has the time to do those types of things? And who can afford to outsource them every meal?

A family member of mine lived at the Pritikin Institute for a few months. She came out a virtual vegetarian and focused on healthful eating. Unfortunately, she was off the wagon a few months later and, when I asked her why, she explained she felt as if she had to spend half her life shopping at Whole Foods and the other half cooking.

We need the “fruit relishes and salsas” that made Bryan’s mouth water; we need the oils, marinades and sauces he found that made the produce so delectable; we need all this and more sold pre-made at retail in the produce department.

Most produce departments, beautiful and upscale as they may be, are still about selling random ingredients. There may be a recipe rack on the floor somewhere, but we sell eggplants alone and just assume or pray the customer knows what to do with them and has the time, ingredients and expertise to do it.

Vegetarians are a useful group to think about in addressing this issue because they need vegetarian entrées. But here is a secret: People were eating eggplant parmagiana long before they were worried about vegetarianism.

If we address the idea of convenient, easy-to-cook, delicious, healthful items — entrées, side dishes, salads, soups and desserts — all made with fresh produce, they will appeal to vegetarians…and everyone else.

The same applies to getting vegetarians to try a broader array of produce. The problem here is that retailers need to adopt a foodservice mentality. A restaurant chef decides something is good and puts it proudly on the menu: The vegetable of the day is a winter squash medley, the fish is sole, the soup minestrone. Whatever it is, the chef selects it, urges customers to try it and promotes it.

Retailers tend to put things out and see if they sell. But they won’t sell to their full potential if retailers don’t promote them, sample them, tell consumers these were selected for promotion because they are so good.

Sustained promotion will introduce new items to vegetarians…and everyone else.