How Sodexo got its customers to eat less meat

In the year since food-service giant Sodexo launched its Meatless Monday program, many of its cafeteria sites have served more vegetable offerings and seen meat purchases decline.

Sodexo, which serves more than 9.3 million meals a day in health care, corporate and government sites, joined the Meatless Monday movement in January 2011. Since its founding in 2003 as a nonprofit, the Meatless Monday Campaign has gained traction in more than 20 countries, with a slew of schools, hospitals, restaurants and celebrities on board.

Why go meatless? Replacing meat-centered meals with those laden with beans and vegetables can not only curb one's environmental footprint – meat carries larger impacts than vegetarian options -- but can also lead to improved health. While many other companies, organizations and individuals are involved in the campaign, Sodexo's large scale makes it particularly well-positioned to grow the trend by bringing it to a broad range of customers.

Sodexo recently surveyed its food service sites participating in the program and found that Meatless Monday has helped serve healthier options, maintain sales and increase customer satisfaction. The results demonstrate that, in some cases, all it takes to curb meat consumption is making vegetarian meals more available and appealing.

"The results from this survey help shed some light on factors that increased success of the Meatless Monday campaign in various food service facilities that Sodexo can learn from as it seeks to expand the campaign across more sites," said Allison Cappelaere, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future's Meatless Monday Project, which assists the national campaign.

In general, Sodexo's program offers more plant-based meal options along with educational materials for customers about the benefits of eating less meat. Through the survey, the results of which were reported by the Center for a Livable Future (PDF), Sodexo found that sites have taken different approaches to Meatless Monday. Some sell meals with less meat or offer to add meat to vegetarian dishes for an additional cost, for example.

The company first rolled out Meatless Monday to health care sites, where it sent toolkits at the beginning of last year. Later, Sodexo offered program materials to all its other sites, encouraging them to take up the initiative -- but offering no special incentives to do so.

Of the 245 sites that responded to the survey, 74 percent offer Meatless Monday. Among those sites, 49 percent have seen customers' vegetable purchases go up, and 30 percent saw lower meat purchases.

"Health was the main motivation for people selecting more meatless options," said Peggy Neu, president of The Monday Campaigns, who noted that a poll by AllRecipes.com found that 80 percent of home cooks who reduced their meat consumption did so for health reasons. "Sodexo has found the perfect formula for tapping into this consumer demand. The innovative menu options created by Sodexo’s chefs, coupled with the company’s educational materials, support the notion that meatless items can taste good and still be good for you."

Slightly more than 75 percent of the locations said the program was easy to put in place, and 65 percent plan to continue offering it, while an additional 24 percent said they may keep offering it.

"The health care sector, though they reported more challenges, was more likely to emphasize the health and environmental benefits of eating less meat and more vegetables and also showed more interest in continuing to promote Meatless Monday," Cappelaere said. "Their concerns were more about obtaining improved recipe ideas to make meatless options more filling and appealing. For corporate providers, on the other hand, Meatless Monday seemed to be a newer concept and they were more interested in receiving campaign materials to better understand and promote the benefits of the promotion."

About half of the sites saw no change in sales while offering Meatless Monday, 30 percent saw overall sales decreases and 19 percent had increased sales. On the customer side, one site said that customers were willing to pay the same price for meat-free dishes as for meat dishes, while another site said their customer satisfaction increased 5 percent due to the program.

As for the sites that don't offer Meatless Mondays, those locations opted out for a variety of reasons.

"Some units either already have comparable offerings focused on meat-free menu choices or are promoting a similar concept on a different day of the week," said Nitu Gupta, Sodexo's vice president of food and nutrition brand management, "There were also a few sites that saw the benefits, but simply felt it was not a program that would resonate with their customers. We see less of that where the program is actively promoted to sites, with ample support or awareness-building materials."

Composition with raw vegetables by monticello via Shutterstock.