Chipotle’s organic tofu Sofritas, Panera Bread’s Mediterranean Veggie Sandwich and Burger King’s BK Veggie burger are all popular and all lacking one thing: meat, which isn’t an accident.

Apparently, one of the latest trends in lunch menus is not serving as many animal proteins, or at least, trying to offer healthy, natural options.

According to data from Chicago-based research firm Technomic, chicken dishes were down 8 percent, while beef and pork dishes decreased 4 percent in the last year.

“Specific to proteins, operators are switching out some of those classic meat-centric offerings and developing better-for-you vegetarian dishes, often with a functional purpose to provide power and energy — think ‘power’ bowls featuring super foods, from kale to beets to spinach,” says Deanna Jordan, senior research analyst, Technomic.

Operators also are experimenting with more grain-based offerings to provide innovative vegetarian and even vegan offerings “to reduce the veto vote and add a healthy, craveable menu option,” she says.

As for the why, operators are trimming down menus overall, looking to decrease back-of-house costs.

“We’ve been seeing this across the industry for some time now as menus had expanded to the breaking point,” says Jordan. “For limited-service concepts, such as McDonald’s, an expansive menu was eating into food preparation times, and in turn, increasing the length of drive-thru occasions.”

Ultimately, operators had to cut back. So restaurants are offering more high-quality and unique menu items for their time-constrained consumers, Jordan says.

“Fast-casuals are meeting (and probably fueling) these demands,” she says. “In terms of proteins, they’ve really been utilizing these health-related call-outs as a point of differentiation from quick-service — think antibiotic-free, free range, etc., by key fast-casual players such as Chipotle, Panera, Noodles & Co, etc. — so much so that the quick-service chains are being forced to step up to the plate.”

McDonald’s recent announcement of its move toward antibiotic-free chicken is certainly a game changer for the industry.

“They’re now putting immense pressure on leading chicken chains to follow suit, which will likely spark a new industry standard,” Jordan says. It’s worth noting that Chick-fil-A was the first among leading quick-service players to move to raise antibiotic-free chickens, which is no surprise considering this chain’s attempts to position itself as a higher-quality option within the quick-service segment.

Paying for premium

Chicken is still the most frequently consumed lunchtime meat, with 34 percent of consumers eating it once a week compared with beef (23 percent), pork (22 percent), seafood (19 percent), vegetarian and/or vegan (17 percent) and turkey (13 percent), according to Technomic’s 2015 Center of the Plate Consumer Trend Report.

“We’re seeing some decreases in willingness to pay extra for health claims, which could signal that these qualities are increasingly becoming expected,” says Jordan.

In fact, Technomic’s report notes that only 23 percent of consumers are willing to pay more for low-fat poultry, as opposed to 31 percent in 2013. Also 21 percent of all consumers are comfortable paying more for low-calorie chicken, compared with 27 percent of millennials.

More consumers, however, are willing to purchase and pay more for poultry that is premium (39 percent), organic (35 percent), unprocessed (34 percent), natural (33 percent) or local (29 percent). 

Competing with fast-casual

Fast-casual restaurants are certainly facing renewed competition from grocers’ new prepared-foods offerings, as sales of prepared foods (in-store and takeout dining) are up nearly 30 percent since 2008, says the Port Washington, N.Y.-based NPD Group. Moreover, in-store grocery dining has reached 1.8 billion visits annually.

Gone are the days when grocery stores only offered rotisserie chickens, pizza and sandwich wraps. Grocers such as Whole Foods Market, Wegmans and Mariano’s now offer grilling stations, hot bars, soup and salad centers, sushi counters and oyster bars.

Indeed, retailers offer time-crunched shoppers diverse meals featuring everything from slow-smoked barbecue, beef chow mein, salmon cake, fried chicken and Vietnamese pho to holiday-themed meals.

Hot meals reached $19.5 billion in sales for supermarkets in 2012, an increase of $5.5 billion in one year, according to the research company Packaged Facts, based in Rockville, Md.

Flavor is key, as most prepared foods are purchased by male grocery shoppers (four in 10 primary shoppers today), who are most concerned with convenience and taste, notes the NPD Group. Female shoppers tend to pay more attention to health trends and consequently avoid certain foods. 

Emphasizing flavor

The deli counter then certainly appeals to both types of shoppers by offering strong flavors and healthy options.

“In the deli, as with the rest of the store, convenience and value are extremely important to most shoppers,” says Alan Hiebert, senior education coordinator, International Dairy Deli Bakery Association (IDDBA), Madison, Wis. And bold flavors are attracting consumers.

“Ethnic flavors have been added to deli meats for years, and they’re continuing to evolve,” says Hiebert. “We’re also seeing the increased popularity of charcuterie — products which tend to have bold flavor profiles.”

Traditional lunchmeat flavors continue to be popular, as well, for quick, convenient lunches or snacks, notes Keith Hill, director of brand management at Land O’Frost, in Lansing, Ill.

“The many available flavor profiles of lunchmeats, such as honey, smoked and oven-roasted, satisfy a variety of tastes,” he says. In the end, lunchmeats’ versatility remains a plus.

“Consumers who don’t want the carbs of the sandwich, or are just looking to kick lunch up a notch, are wrapping lunchmeat in cheese or lettuce,” Hill says.

Focusing on ingredients

Similar to restaurant diners, grocery shoppers are also seeking natural deli choices with no artificial ingredients or preservatives, notes the IDDBA’s “Engaging the Evolving Shopper” report.

“Deli department shoppers also look to avoid negative ingredients, seeking products that are low in sodium and low in fat and minimally processed,” notes the report. “Humane treatment of animals is also a consideration for deli department shoppers.”

They not only want the animals to be raised humanely, but for their food and treatment to be sustainable, as well.

“Deli departments that can message around these attributes in their products can start to build a positive sustainability and wellness halo to earn shopper trust,” the report states.

A subset of ingredient-conscious lunchmeat consumers is definitely emerging. 

“These consumers are more informed and choosy about what they are eating, but they don’t want to give up their favorite foods,” says Corey Rudd, cold cuts brand manager at Oscar Mayer, in Madison, Wis. “And, they expect value.”

These consumers are discerning when it comes to ingredients, and they want a package that allows them to “inspect” the meat prior to purchase — and one that also recloses, says Rudd.

To that end, Oscar Mayer is launching a new deli line called Selects Natural to meet these consumer needs.  The turkey, ham, chicken and roast beef deli products will be made with no artificial preservatives, added hormones, fillers, MSG, artificial flavors, byproducts, artificial ingredients or artificial colors, Rudd says. 

Land O’Frost also has created a new line to address the shift to artificial ingredient-free products with its Pure and Simple line.

“It provides consumers with an option that is all natural, antibiotic-free and contains no animal by-products or nitrates/nitrites and is available in four varieties — Uncured Honey Smoked Ham, Uncured Applewood Smoked Ham, Oven Roasted Turkey Breast and Honey Roasted Turkey Breast,” says Hill.

Land O’Frost also offers Simply Delicious, a full line of lunchmeats that are 97 percent to 98 percent fat-free and certified by the American Heart Association’s Heart-Check Food Certification Program.

“We’re seeing consumers specifically looking for healthier options, especially those that are low in fat,” Hill says.

Specialty-meats department shoppers are also looking for foods with minimal processing, artificial preservatives and ingredients, but less likely to care about low-fat options, notes the “Engaging the Evolving Shopper” report. They also care about animal-related factors, with hormone-free (25 percent) being a top concern.

Going forward, retailers and restaurant operators will have to focus on not only offering the best product, but also the best digital merchandising in an omni-channel world.

“While online ordering options are clearly convenient for consumers, they have a common drawback: They limit or eliminate the need to set foot in a brick-and-mortar store,” Hiebert says.

IDDBA research indicates chains that can execute online ordering and digital merchandising in the perishable-foods departments will have a tremendous opportunity to increase sales and gain customer loyalty, Hiebert says.

Millennials vs. boomers

The International Dairy Deli Bakery Association’s (IDDBA) “Engaging the Evolving Shopper” report indicates that millennial shoppers are fairly different than baby boomers when it comes to the deli case, and are more interested in new and unique deli items.

“Millennials also have a different idea of what healthy is,” says Alan Hiebert, senior education coordinator at IDDBA, in Madison, Wis. “For them, avoiding sodium, high-fructose corn syrup and trans fats is more important than simply avoiding ‘fat,’ like some older shopper might.”

Although shoppers seem to want lower-sodium deli meats, the jury is still out on how much they will actually buy.

“We’re seeing some shoppers eating smaller portions of highly flavorful deli meats and cheeses as a way to cut back on sodium,” Hiebert says. He notes that millennials are also more aware of products that offer “stealth nutrition,” such as deli prepared foods that offer alternative proteins, whole grains or probiotics.