Itsu founder Julian Metcalfe has said it's the responsibility of operators to make sure meat-free dishes are "as good, if not better" than their counterparts.
Discussing the development of the grab-and-go group's new meatless meatballs, a bespoke product created in partnership with Meatless Farm, he said: "It's got to be good and that doesn't happen overnight. The texture, taste and colour all have to be right, it's very complex."
Itsu's menu is 40% plant-based – it has long-term ambitions for this to reach 60% – but the meatless meatballs, which are now available across the country, are the first plant-based meat substitute to be used by the company.
Metcalfe said: "We were pursuing the target of 40% for quite some time and doing it the traditional way with vegetables. Then about a year ago we really started investigating these new products that can be made to taste authentic and delicious without endless potentially aggressive chemicals. It's been an extraordinary journey and we're still learning a lot but we've found Meatless Farm to be really in sync with us."
The founder of Itsu, as well as high street favourite Pret A Manger, said that sustainability goals demand alternatives to intensive animal farming are found, but stressed that they must be delicious so as not to turn customers off plant-based products.
He explained: "We need to create products with real integrity, which are delicious and affordable; it's not about jumping on a bandwagon.
"Our customers want to see change but they don't want to see Frankenstein alternatives or naff Instagrammable things like fake fish made of watermelon. They won't come back to buy that repeatedly."
Morten Toft Bech, founder of Meatless Farm, added: "There's not an easy solution or development, it's something we've been striving for. It needs to be as good as meat, or potentially even better, with much better environmental and health credentials as well. Fundamentally it has to be driven by taste: you can't win over consumers just because they want to support the environment, it has to be because they're enjoying the food."
Itsu is also developing a plant-based gyoza, but pulled a potential launch, because it wasn't judged to be good enough. Metcalfe, who said hundreds of prototypes are sampled before a menu item is approved, explained: "We were under pressure to do a non-meat gyoza that was not vegetable based, but at the last minute our CEO cancelled it. In her opinion it wasn't good enough, so we cancelled the entire launch.
"That's the thing – we cannot alienate people [from meat-free dishes]. It's our responsibility to make sure it's just as good, if not better. It's not a fad and it's not a fashion show, it's a really serious subject."
Itsu's new meatless meatball rice'bowl uses green technology to create a meatball texture from natural plant protein. The meatballs are then cooked with lemongrass, tamarind, coriander, chilli and garlic to create an Asian flavour, and coloured with beetroot, radish, tomato and caramelised carrots.
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