The 21st century has seen increased awareness of and efforts to be more environmentally focused as we begin to see the effects of global warming. The restaurant and culinary worlds are slowly beginning to transform as well, as new demands are put on the global food supply and customers increasingly demand ethically sourced food. One of the trends that has emerged over the past several years is the plant-forward diet; not vegan or vegetarian, but simply rethinking what is the centerpiece of a person’s plate. At first glance, this seems to be a catch-all diet for the 21st century; vegetables and fruits will become the mainstay of the population’s meal while the meat-eaters are placated with (albeit smaller) servings of their favorite animal proteins. I recently visited a plant-forward restaurant in Manhattan, 232 Bleecker, that opened only a few months ago. During my visit, I couldn’t help but compare it to my experience as a café manager at a large tech firm in Manhattan.
My initial exposure to plant-forward thinking at the foodservice management company’s account in Manhattan started on my very first day during orientation. It became very clear that plant-based eating and general healthy eating was the cornerstone of the firm’s culinary vision. Suggestive marketing tactics were one of the most subtle but effective strategies employed by the firm; instead of not carrying Coke, for instance, they simply put it on the bottom shelf of the refrigerators which had deliberately frosted glass from the waist down to block your line of sight. You could grab a ribeye steak if you wanted, but you first had to pass the custom salad bar (which was amazing), sandwich shop, and various other plant-based rotating stations. We deliberately stocked smaller plates beside the plancha and rotisserie stations to encourage customers to go and get a bigger plate of salad or veggie stir-fry nearby. For many of the firm’s employees, this was their first experience with plant-forward eating and they didn’t even realize it. Offering the customer the choice to have that Coke, or that steak, while subtly encouraging them to make healthier decisions made it feel like an organic process rather than a chore or a forced habit. But what happened when that employee left the office and cooked at home on Wednesday night, or was looking for new restaurants to explore on the weekends? I wasn’t so sure the employer’s marketing tactics made an impact on their eating habits and choices.
My recent visit to 232 Bleecker, a thinly disguised night out which I called “market research” was a completely different experience compared to my time as a café manager. Whereas the tech firm employees merely had the option to eat a plant-based diet, diners at 232 Bleecker most likely chose the restaurant specifically for Chef Cupps’ plant-forward ethos. I confess that I am a meat-lover and occasionally asked for that extra piece of salmon while I was a café manager. But the presentation of the menu items at 232 Bleecker looked just as appetizing as any filet or steak that I’ve ever seen. The vibrant colors and textures of different ingredients continually impressed me with each dish. I sat there thinking, “OK, I get it.” Instead of giving diners the option to drink Coke and eat a steak, 232 Bleecker was able to rely on the sheer attractiveness and flavors of its dishes; every diner immediately recognized they were eating at a plant-forward restaurant, unlike the tech firm’s dining program. Despite my wonderful experience, I couldn’t help but think of how few people are exposed to this restaurant. 232 Bleecker is one of very few plant-forward restaurants in the city and it only opened its doors in 2019. Combine the small seating capacity and relatively pricey menu, and it suddenly becomes a relatively exclusive experience. 232 Bleecker gave its diners an excellent look at plant-forward diets, but it couldn’t reach the same amount of people as the huge tech firm could.
After my visit to 232 Bleecker, I began looking into the plant-forward eating throughout the national culinary scene. What I found was encouraging; well-known restaurateur Jose Andres has opened his sixth location of the plant-forward fast-casual concept Beefsteak in Chicago, while other renowned chefs such as Amanda Cohen at Dirt Candy, Dan Barber at Blue Hill, and Kyle & Katina Connaughton at SingleThread continue to make names for themselves and bring awareness to various aspects of plant-forward eating. Although my experience as a café manager for a Manhattan tech firm and my night out at 232 Bleecker were extremely different with respect to plant-forward eating, I believe their two approaches are complimentary to one another. The tech firm is able to reach a huge crowd that would otherwise congregate for lunch at the numerous food trucks (none of which are remotely healthy or environmentally friendly) dotted throughout Manhattan. However, the subtleties of their plant-forward program may not be enough to change their employee’s eating habits when they leave work. That is where the 232 Bleeckers and Beefsteaks and Blue Hills come in; a radically different approach that makes people realize plant-forward diets can and should be a conscious decision.