Key Takeaways 

  • Restaurants and businesses are beginning to incorporate more plant-based and locally sourced items as consumer preferences are shifting.
  • It can be intimidating to enter this market with some of the negative buzz surrounding vegan and vegetarian diets, it’s important to understand what going plant-based and locally sourced means. 
  • By shifting towards plant-based and locally sourced options, you can increase your profits, expand your consumer base, support your bottom line and become less susceptible to supply chain shocks.

What’s all this buzz around plant-based?

Consumer spending on plant-based products has increased by approximately 2.6 billion dollars in just the last two years. Now more than ever, customers are demanding plant-based products, and businesses are having to quickly adapt to accomodate this new and emerging market. But just what is it about going plant-based that is driving consumers and businesses to change so quickly? And why is switching to a plant-based diet important in the first place? To find out, our team spoke to restaurant owners, entrepreneurs and research specialists in food systems around the country to highlight some guidance and recommendations for becoming a part of this emerging market. 

Sustainable menus, the proof is in the plants 

Increasingly dire climate reports are being published at an alarming rate and with that more people are becoming conscious of their carbon footprint.  Opportunities for small businesses in the food industry to go plant-based and start sourcing locally can be a solution to aligning with consumers’ more sustainable lifestyle. Consumers want something that will speak to their needs- convenience, health, and environmental consciousness. The long held symbiotic relationship between farmers and restaurant owners has strengthened the food industry by supporting changing consumer habits and is one kind of strategy that can differentiate one business identity from competitors. 

Food Systems Senior Research Specialist at the Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems, Colleen Hanley,  has something to say about the impacts of sourcing locally and bolstering your sustainability portfolio as a plant-based restaurant. Hanley highlighted that 90% of people in the United States have detectable concentration of pesticides in their system from conventional production systems. Heavy application of pesticides and fertilizers not only have lasting health impacts, but are also detrimental to the environment by increasing greenhouse gas emissions and lowering biodiversity. Reflecting on her on-farm work experience, Hanley posits that organic agriculture must be a part of the solution to the problems we have in our food system, and hopefully it is not the only solution.

Sourcing locally is an essential step in the movement to encourage a culture of wellness and sustainability through food. Farm-to-table businesses are carving a new space in the restaurant industry that is prioritizing quality ingredients and fresh food.  For individuals in the restaurant industry wanting to shift towards a plant-based menu, Hanley suggests that processed foods, whether plant-based (such as faux meats) or animal-based, are not the path forward for sustainability. Rather, having a diversified menu focused on whole-foods is essential in increasing customer satisfaction and catering to a variety of food preferences. As consumers are expecting more planet positive foods that check all of their boxes, restaurants will combine innovation and creativity to meet these demands and race for a spot at the top of the plant-based pyramid. 

Dodging risky ag and capitalizing on plant-based opportunities

Our current agricultural systems are diminishing our ability to grow food in the future through extractive practices that degrade our soils, overuse water, emit greenhouse gasses, lead to deforestation, and biodiversity loss. These issues may seem out of the scope of your small business, but if food is one of your main products, then relying on an inefficient and destructive food system puts the core of your business at risk. More and more customers are understanding the importance of sustainable agriculture and shifting to sustainable diets. A NielsonIQ Survey found that 39% of Americans are wanting to incorporate more plant-based foods into their diets. This is not a trend or fad that is going to fizzle out. It is an emerging market that is here to stay. As the concern for our current agriculture systems grows, so does the demand for something different. Your business could capitalize on emerging opportunities as well as mitigate significant risks by simply incorporating or expanding plant-based dishes into your menus and sourcing local organic produce wherever possible. There is a resounding call for businesses to do good – not just avoid harm. Are you willing to answer?

Where local comes from

Recent events have shed light on the risks of supply chain shortages and the importance of building a resilient network of trusted suppliers. Fifty years ago, about 70% of the produce found in grocery stores were produced or processed within 100 miles. Today, the food Americans consume has traveled on average 1,500 miles before reaching their plates. As a food business, the food that you serve is of paramount importance, and you do everything you can to ensure that you source your most valued products from reliable trusted suppliers. Choosing food that travels fewer miles from farm to your customer’s fork can actually benefit your business in many ways. 

Sourcing locally grown food can reduce fuel costs associated with transportation, provide fresher and better tasting ingredients, and increase your bottom line through product differentiation and customer preference. According to a Statista survey, 95% of US households prefer to eat locally sourced food. 

But what exactly is locally sourced? There is no predetermined definition of “local”, but most customers associated local with food grown within a 100 mile radius. While there are benefits of sourcing local food and advertising it to your customers, misleading customers can be detrimental to your business. Since there is no protocol that sets a definition that businesses must follow in order to serve something as local, there could be the temptation to toss the word “local” onto a menu with your own loose definition. But, customers are smarter than you think. When they find out that your definition of local includes far away states or even another country, they could feel misled and their trust in your business will erode. Nothing good can come from this type of situation.

What do food industry veterans have to say about the plant-based trend?

As a small business, switching to plant-based/locally sourced options can be a daunting task. Variables to consider include price, brand differentiation, training and changes in procurement. To help make the process a little easier, we asked restaurant owners, managers and entrepreneurs about their success in this new movement. Check out what they had to say. 

Meet the experts…

melissa murphy
Melissa Murphy: Started Sweet Melissa Vegetarian Cafe in Laramie, Wyoming over 20 years ago. Currently one of the only completely vegan/vegetarian restaurants in the state. 
lincoln humphrey
Lincoln Humphrey: Head chef/manager of Sweet Melissa Vegetarian Cafe
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Paris Masek: Created Green on Purpose, a service that provides and connects small businesses with local, organic, and sustainably grown produce in Phoenix, Arizona.

What is your definition of plant-based and locally sourced? 

A simple Google search will show you that definitions vary based upon who you ask or what source you use, so it’s important to build understanding that can be used in your branding and marketing down the road. 

Melissa: To me, a plant-based diet means you eat primarily foods not derived from animal sources, but doesn’t necessarily mean you are always vegan or vegetarian.

Lincoln: My personal definition of plant-based food is anything that’s derived exclusively from plants. However, for vegetarians sake, they have dairy, eggs, and honey, though this definition is changing almost on a daily basis.

Paris: To me personally, I look at a 100 mile radius as being truly local.

How versatile are plant-based and locally sourced options?

We’ve all become used to having whatever type of cuisine we want, whenever we want it. Additionally, the common belief is that plant-based food is often bland and limits what you can have on your menu. Will implementing plant-based/locally sourced jeopardize this? 

Melissa: A plant- based menu can be very versatile! Our menu actually has much more variety than most!

Lincoln: Well, the short answer is absolutely! The long answer, you know, you see a steak, ribeye, it is almost against the law to do anything but salt, pepper, and grill it. But if I look at a block of tofu, which most people accustomed to western diets don’t understand, and I see 15 different dishes I can make with it.

Paris: What you lose in being stuck to seasonality you make up for in brand differentiation and freshness. It opens up possibilities for your business to create specials that capitalize on the market you are operating in. 

What made you decide to get started in the plant-based and locally sourced food industry?  

The demand for planet-friendly options amongst consumers is becoming more prevalent than ever. Here are some responses to why these small businesses decided to get in early on this emerging market.

Melissa: I opened a plant-based restaurant because I am a long-time vegetarian and wanted to show how varied and delicious that diet can be (we aren’t entirely plant-based because we use eggs and dairy).

Lincoln: I was able to do something entirely different in Wyoming, a state where ranching and cattle are ubiquitous. Additionally plant-based is becoming more and more of a thing in “normal food” culture. 

Paris: I was able to enter into an untapped market. 

What recommendations can you give to small businesses and entrepreneurs who are interested in beginning to implement plant-based and locally sourced food into their operations? 

Because the plant-based/locally sourced market is so new, it can be hard to find reputable information when getting started. Because of this, it’s important to listen to entrepreneurs and business owners who have a well-established history of success. 

Melissa: You can add dishes that are naturally plant-based (like a vegetable stir fry, hummus, etc) for people who might balk at eating anything “vegan”. You could also include meat but in smaller amounts, almost like a condiment, in a plant-based dish.

Lincoln: Start with something familiar and move forward with it. Don’t over complicate the concept. Try highlighting the fact that the food is vegetarian. Start small and start inexpensive. 

Paris: Contact your city’s environmental services department to see what recommendations they have for sourcing local produce. Visit your local farmers market and connect with some of the local growers. Get to know the market you are working in. Try networking with other restaurants who are sourcing local produce. 

Is there any benefit to switching to more plant-based and locally sourced menu options? 

Costs and benefits are a part of any decision a business makes about its operations. It’s no secret that implementing sustainable practices often comes with its fair share of challenges. Here’s what our interviewees had to say about it. 

Melissa: A meat-centered diet seems unsustainable for the world at large. It would help people, animals, and the environment if we transitioned to a more plant-based diet.  


  1. Sustainability. Water usage and resource usage. Deriving a plant-based menu will derive sustainability. 
  2. Morality and ethics. Widespread abuse and extermination. Demand for protein is so high now, and the market is leaning more towards ethics. 
  3. Cost. For example, swapping from meat to portabella caps is a much cheaper option. The cost is still comparably smaller over time. 
  4. Brand differentiation: Standing out amongst your competitors and capitalizing on a growing demographic of consumers.  


  1. Product freshness and taste: Last week I delivered 100 carrots to a restaurant 2 hours after they were pulled out of the ground. Even though the product is a bit more expensive, it makes up for it in less spoilage and loss of product due to longer transport times. 
  2. Longer shelf life and visual character: If you are sourcing locally there is less mechanical abuse in the production than if you were sourcing wholesale. 

Is sourcing plant-based and locally sourced produce more expensive? 

This is the age-old question when it comes to deciding whether or not to tap into this market. Prices can vary based on brand, location, season and so much more. Here’s what the experts said. 

Melissa: Ingredients can be more expensive because they aren’t as widely used. Produce items also tend to vary greatly, making it a challenge to price out the menu. However, that is balanced by not having to worry about the sometimes (and currently) high price of meat. Overall, a plant-based menu is cheaper than animal products

Lincoln: Vegan food seems to be a little bit more expensive, but when calculating the environmental and ethical costs of animal products, it is definitely worth it. 

Paris: I mean number one, you’re not paying for the high infrastructure costs associated with conventional sourcing. Number 2, you’re going to have less product waste again, which is good in the long run. 

The Facts 

Expanding your customer base, as sweet as pie

All successful businesses understand their market, and according to a NielsonIQ Homescan Survey, 39% of Americans are wanting to incorporate plant-based foods into their diets. By expanding your menu to include tasty, unique, plant-based items, you can capture this growing market and expand your customer base. Your current traditional food business could become the new hangout, lunch spot, or date night destination of people, friends, and couples that are looking for both plant-based and non plant-based options. 

Planting the $eeds for growth, with a capital $

By nature of casting in a larger customer base, sales tend to increase as a result. But there is even more opportunity for sales growth through sourcing local organic produce. A 2021 Statista survey, found that 95% of US households are willing to pay more for local food. This means that with 96% of Americans defining local food as grown within 100 miles, sourcing food from local farmers can be more profitable for your business while strengthening the local economy. A stronger local economy means a more steady customer base. 

Serving up the competition

When people are looking to make a decision on what to eat for a meal, they have a lot of options! It is already difficult enough to get customers to consider your small business, and even more difficult to get them to choose you over your competitors. Any way you can stand out as a business is a lucrative decision. You may already have a weekly special that people love, or great staff, or a location that is hard to beat, but there is no such thing as too many ways of strategic differentiation. By taking the steps to include delicious, healthy, plant-based and locally sourced menu items, your business can stand out from the rest of the options that your customers have to choose from. Yes, some food businesses may be adding a green leaf next to their salads and bruschetta appetizers, but you can have customers pour into your business if you take the time to craft unique and well thought out plant-based options that include fresh, local ingredients. Imagine customers associating your business with food options that taste good, feel good, and are actually doing good by supporting a sustainable food system. This is a real possibility for your business, but only if you take the time to make it happen. 

Sustaining your business and fortifying your local community

Through food purchase choices, you’re deciding the materials which to build your business. Building it with a destructive global food system is like building your house with straw. It may not be the best choice in the long run. When the big bad wolves of the world cause storms, the straws of the supply chain may wash out from underneath you, leaving you with little material structure of your business. Sourcing as many products as possible from local entities helps build resilience to global shocks and at the same time build resilience in your own community. 

Planting for action, sowing a successful business plan

While there are plenty of damaging effects that our current animal product heavy agricultural system has on the environment, at the end of the day, you want to increase customers for your business to thrive. Running a small business is no simple feat, and adding another “must do” to the endless list of tasks can seem overwhelming, especially if it is in the name of protecting the environment instead of protecting your business. Incorporating plant-based items into your menu and sourcing local organic produce is doing just that: Protecting your business. Incorporating plant-based, local food menus can grow your business by expanding your customer base, improve sales, differentiate your brand, increase food safety, and support a sustainable food system. Is that a win-win-win-win-win? 

Now is the time for small businesses to embrace sustainable strategies that will align with customer preferences. The plant-based market is booming, and savvy restaurant owners are taking advantage of locally sourced ingredients to create one-of-a-kind menus that will leave customers with a better flavor in their mouth and feeling better about their footprint. Here are a few ways to get started catering to a planet forward population:

  1. Keep it simple: When starting to incorporate more plant-based and locally sourced items, stick to what you know. Don’t over complicate your recipes or operations, and try adding plant-based versions of the items you already have on your menu. Perform a cost analysis with the new ingredients to see what works for you and what doesn’t. 
  2. Do your research: Know the market you are working in and realize the possibilities of exploring untapped opportunities. By understanding the environmental impacts of our current agricultural system, you will have a greater appreciation for sustainable business practices such as sourcing locally and maintaining close relationships with growers.  Contact your city’s environmental services department to see what recommendations they have for sourcing local. 
  3. Visit local farms: Reach out to local growers and restaurants that have already implemented a farm-to-table experience to understand the process that is required by both parties in this business decision. Local farmers will have expertise on wiser agriculture practices, the local supply chain, and seasonality of crops that can be integrated into menus. Who knows, you could form new partnerships!
  4. Survey for customer preferences: Whether customers are providing feedback on the newest portobello mushroom burger on the menu or suggesting a new ingredient to be considered in the future, surveys provide an instant connection to a customer and improve their experience. Taking advantage of customer feedback creates a collaborative environment for ensuring customer satisfaction and loyalty. 

Learn more about plant-based alternatives: The farm-to-table philosophy prioritizes quality fresh produce that can be transformed into incredible plant-based combinations. Strategizing seasonal availability of produce and researching innovative plant based food alternatives will boost menu versatility.