With the newer generation of millennials focusing more on conscious consumerism—especially in their food choices, stores and restaurants have to rethink their approach to their consumer. NNN food markets are feeling the squeeze too. In California, a property once housing a popular burger chain was eventually replaced by a newer plant-based fast food company—which expanded to a second location in 2017, and now boasts of five locations in southern California. The question that must be answered is how will this current movement toward more conscious eating effect the business practices of NNN food retailers in the future?
I had the distinct privilege of sitting down and interviewing George Vutetakis someone who is a vegan chef, author, and food strategist. His insight into the food world and the changes it is making to the landscape of society were truly remarkable.
Enjoy our conversation:
Albert Haddad (AH): Hi, this is Albert Haddad and welcome to another edition of Fast Game. Today, I have the pleasure of speaking with George Vutetakis; a chef, an author, a restaurateur and a plant based food strategist with several fortune 500 companies. George, welcome to Fast Game.
George Vutetakis (GV): Hi Albert. Thanks so much for having me. I really look forward to our little discussion here.
What is a plant based Diet and how do compassionate eaters get their protein?
AH: Fantastic. George, can you define what a plant based diet is for those who don’t know?
GV: Well, it really boils down to just plants without any animal products and that’s the definition that drives the trend right now and what really has become known as plant based, but there’s some confusion which is brought on by people who feel that they can base their diet on plants and having the recommended 90% to 95% plant content and then have a protein added whether it is animal or otherwise. So, they’re trying to define it as mostly plants and you see that in the marketplace a little bit. The real definition is that it’s just all plants. It’s often associated with the vegan movement.
AH: With regard to that, many people are thinking, how do I get my protein if I’m plant based? So, George, how do you answer and educate to that question?
GV: Well, most plant-based people that I know don’t worry about protein. The real issue is how much protein one is assimilating, how much you’re digesting, and how the food interacts in your body. In the United States, we eat too much protein as it is. There’s many diseases that have been documented to come from that. Things like kidney stones and kidney disease, diverticulitis, cardiac health issues, cancer, and all these conditions have direct links to meat consumption. So, it’s a matter of mixing together the proteins in the plant based food along with complex carbohydrates, fermented bio available foods, phytonutrients and all the different proteins that come in many forms.
The thing about it is that there’s no magical elixir here. We’re taught to look for active ingredients but in plant based foods, in the traditions that go back thousands of years of eating that way, really are about having a variegated diet, mixing and matching, sort of the meze concept and the thali concept from India, and all of the other plant-based oriented foods that we see. The Mediterranean diet is perfect in the sense that you have all these little dishes come together and they’re not just there for your pleasure, they’re there because each one brings something to the table for the nutrition and how the food is digested and at the same time, how you perceive it. That also helps so much with digestion.
Just one more thing about the protein. It’s a myth that’s out there. The meat consumption, it’s proliferated as a symbol of prosperity. The foods that we’ve brought to our country as immigrants that we celebrate our cultures with are often the foods of entertainment, and therefore, usually full of meat products, dairy products, full fat, these kinds of things. What we’ve done is we’ve actually through the restaurant business and just through normalization in the civilization; we’ve made it as our everyday diet. This is something that it’s sort of new in the world. It’s not the way people have eaten over the years.
There’s one study that was done, an archeological study in Roman Africa, where they found that the higher classes were actually much less healthy than the lower classes because the lower classes would eat the same sort of plant-based oriented diet every day. So, there’s something to be said for that.
AH: So, George, what I’m hearing from you is that our bodies are wired to eat that way?
GV: Yeah. I think we’re social animals and we tend to go with the flow of what’s around us. The reality is there’s a cycle to the seasons. There’s the cycle of the earth. If we live more according to that cycle, then we actually get many more nutrients and become much healthier.
What does it mean to eat clean?
AH: George, you’ve been on the forefront of food and eating clean. Can you define what eating clean and/or conscious eating is? What does it mean to be a conscious eater? How can you be a conscious eater if you’re not a vegan or vegetarian?
GV: Well, eating clean is also about having a clean conscience. I suggest starting by asking a few questions: what’s in your food? Are there pesticides in your food? Are there processing aids used in the production of your food? For instance, 70%, 80% of the wheat crop in this country, the conventional wheat crop, is sprayed with glyphosate as a desiccant just to help improve yield. Have nothing to do with GMOs or anything like that, but it’s often dripping as they harvest it. Things like this that they don’t have to claim that we have to be concerned about.
So, I usually tell people to focus on looking where their food comes from, looking at regenerative agriculture, which is a new buzz word, but is essentially the traditional organic agriculture, the way food’s always been grown with crop cycles, and then look at how it’s processed, look at where the food’s coming from, who’s growing it. I suggest going to the farmer’s markets and meeting the farmers and getting the vegetables that had just been freshly picked in the morning with the dew still dropping from the vegetables. There’s nothing like it. It’s much different experience than going to a grocery store and having the food that was sitting in the walk-in cooler for weeks before you’ve actually purchased it.
So, as far as being a conscious eater, the lower one eats on the food chain generally speaking is seen as a higher consciousness, especially in many the Eastern traditions. There’s not really a point of reference defined by science or religion and there’s a lot of confusion in this way. I suggest common sense and substitute the word compassionate for conscious. This will help with clarity.
How can companies adapt to this shift in mindset?
AH: Wow! That is a lot of information. You know, George, with the millennial generation, who seem to be more conscious of their food choices, how are food companies going to have to evolve and the same with restaurants? And, what role does government play and the major food companies with regard to education and the importance of a plant based diet?
GV: Well, one of the things we need to look at is a new supply chain. This is already underway and happening, because a lot of the foods that are trendy right now are small startups and people getting ingredients, sourcing from areas that haven’t normally been sourced from. Chefs have become the new caretakers of our dietary preference. It used to be we find that in the home, but now restaurants sort of define what’s good in food.
So, there’s a real responsibility there to not only provide delicious and healthy food but to make sure that the ingredients in the food are sourced properly. Especially with chefs, because the farm to table movements going on for some time now, but very few restaurants are farm to table in the reality. They try and there are some chefs who are really doing an incredible job with that. The everyday chef, just like in the marketplace, in the packaged food world, the everyday chef has to worry about his bottom line. So often, they’re making choices that sacrifice the integrity of your health for the sensory point at a cost that they can afford and something they can live off of.
So, in the packaged food industry, it’s really a big challenge there because you have a lot of big companies buying smaller companies, because they’re the ones who are really creating the trends and on the cutting edge and getting a lot of attention. So, the big companies have their supply chains, which are geared towards this maximum efficiency with a few specific ingredients. Things like three-eighths inch diced frozen vegetables and that will be what they use for their entire product line or a good amount of it. Once you start changing ingredients and sourcing from someplace else and it’s like throwing a monkey wrench in the works and it’s an exponential costs factor which increases as you go down the road.
So, what happens is these companies get bought up and they get assimilated into the larger corporations, and the larger corporations feel that the most efficient way and the most benefit that these smaller companies can have from their expertise in the marketplace is to scale up in the supply chain. Therefore, what you have is a lot of the ingredients are watered down. You have companies that lose their edge because they’ve been incorporated into a larger supply chain. So, that really needs to change. It really needs to focus and go the other way around where we realize the benefit and what consumers want and what people really become healthier with are the ingredients that are sourced properly from farms with identities, with stories, so you know where your food comes from.
Same thing I was saying about the farmer’s market. So, it applies to the bigger companies. Just the challenge is that it’s on a much larger scale.
AH: George, I couldn’t agree with you more and it’s so nice to hear you speak with such clarity. How did you have the foresight to know how to put all these traditions and combinations together in your restaurant Inn Season?
GV: Well, I was passionate about food and history. It’s what makes us human. There are plant-based traditions in every culture. What we did at Inn Season was looked at those traditions that the great ethnic food culture we had in the city of Detroit, whether it’s Italian, Mexican, African-American, or even Native American, we had all these cultures represented here back in the early 80s. So, when we opened the restaurant, we were farm to table, but we were inspired by these cultures.
The other thing about it though was that we weren’t just going to recreate the food as it was in the restaurants and homes around here. We were going to do it with ingredients that were locally sourced. So, every ingredient was chosen for specific health benefits as well as the sensory benefits. So, you can trust that when you ate at this restaurant, you would have the healthiest food, but at the same time, delicious. So, people ate there every day and they were healthier for it. We had people moving into the neighborhood because it was a quality of life issue. We had doctors prescribing the food to the patients.
At one point, we actually had four hour waits at the restaurant. It was good food. I mean basically, that’s what good food is.
Is food different today than it was in the past?
AH: It’s spectacular food and your vision still radiates today, even though you’re not on the floor. George, how is food different today than it was 50 years ago? Has it changed? How many people realize or don’t realize this?
GV: Well, it’s evolved in different ways. One of the things is that and especially on a mass scale with the consumer package goods business, shelf life is the primary concern and food safety. We’ve heard about all these recalls from food safety. It doesn’t mean that there’s more issues with food borne illness. It means that we’re actually recognizing that they’re there and they’re documented. It’s the kind of thing that with the scale that we’re talking about, with the amount of food that’s being produced, again, all it takes is one little misstep and it affects millions of people. So, that’s really changed. We’ve come a long way. What it’s also done is that we’ve sort of sanitized the whole system where the entire supply chain from the farm to the shelf at the store, each step has food safety considerations. Each step has efficiency considerations.
Each step, because of the ongoing nature of having to operate a food business, you have to constantly have cost cutting measures because prices go up. Well, what’s the first thing that get cut? The first thing to get cut is the ingredient, you find a cheaper source and what’s the trade off there. So, there’s a big difference with that. There’s also a big difference with consumer expectations. It used to be that we would take a little blemish in our food. Now, we have to have everything so packaged that even in organic foods, there’s 20% to 40% waste in cleaning the beans just to get to the point where you put them on the shelf because they have to be perfect. If you have blemish in them, people don’t buy them.
Well, those blemish go back to the factory farming world and go towards animal feeds. So, even though we had these pea protein burgers and all these great plant-based things, we haven’t solved the food waste issue and as a result of it, it’s still intimately connected with the factory farming business.
Another thing is these days it takes about 12 bushels of corn to fatten the cog now. Thirty years ago, it was about four.
AH: Why has that changed so much?
GV: Well, first of all, there’s a difference in the quality of the corn with the genetic modification and in the way it’s grown and the choices that are made in the varieties that are made for scale growing and for yield and packaging. Whereas previously, it wasn’t as developed that way. Also because the yield, the cost cutting, the extra meat that’s grown. The extra fat and meat that’s on the animal means that you can actually make more money with your animal that way.
How does a plant-based diet make us more conscious of the world around us?
AH: Wow! Having said all of that, what does a plant based diet do for the world?
GV:Well the plant based diet, it increases health, it increases longevity, it reduces the abuse of the environment and lowers the level of hypocrisy. When we say we want world peace and then we are killing animals and have a system of killing that supports this. That’s a little rough to say for a lot of people. The reality is it’s not about whether you eat meat or not, it’s about how you eat it. It’s about the factory farming and the quality of meat you’re actually getting after it goes through the factory farming system. It’s very different than a cohabitation situation where, like in the Mediterranean where they would eat the animals for the holidays but they would live with them until that was the case.
AH: So, how do we get family or friends to cook and sit around the dinner table in today’s fast paced world being conscious, being compassionate, or have we lost that sense of purpose?
GV:Well, people have been drinking Kool-Aid about what we should eat for a long time. Kool-Aid is packaged in very specific ways to keep us in involved. But, all joking aside, traditional plant based diets are connected to the land and use wild foraging, organic farming and mindful eating as part of the equation. Mindful means many things. Mindful, it’s social with food being a form of loving expression. Mindful of the living beings we cohabitate the earth with. The same animals who also have a propensity to love themselves. Mindful of beautifully prepared food, no matter how simple that nourishes as well as nurtures, eating food is one of the most intimate things we do in life. How we approach it and how we eat it and honor it makes us who we are. It’s one of the most incredible things that we have and it is something that can change us on a molecular level and in ways that we don’t even realize.
AH: I am definitely a firm believer in that, George. We’re all very fortunate to have those opportunities and we should take advantage of them as much as we can. I have one last question for you George and that is this: what is one thing someone can do to become more conscious in their eating, whether it be a more plant based diet or otherwise? Again, what is the one thing someone can do to become more conscious in their eating today?
GV: I think you switched the word conscious with compassion. More than conscious, compassion is awareness of the world around you. It’s a personality trait that’s held in high esteem in philosophies, religions and communities around the world. It makes it so you see other people, it makes it so when you go into a kitchen or you want to learn how to cook something or prepare something, you’re looking at the mindset of the person who’s preparing it and so you understand what their intentions are. I think that is a really great starting point for changing our view of the world and to work together to make it a better place.
AH: Conscious, compassionate, and awareness. That is George Vutetakis. I can’t stress enough how compassionate and conscious and aware you are of food and of all the goodness that it brings to us. This is Albert Haddad and I sincerely appreciate George Vutetakis speaking with us today on this edition of Fast Game.
As you can see, the benefits to a plant-based diet are immense. Though it will have its impact personally, it is also being seen through the impact that is having across the expanse of restaurants and stores. NNN food retailers are trying to adapt with some rolling out their own plant-based options to meet consumer needs
With the American Action Forum conducting research in 2018, which found that a more market-driven approach to climate change will reduce emissions, the connection will directly impact the food industry; the reduction of carbon emissions directly correlates to the choices people make with their food consumption.
If you have any questions about how the movement toward a plant-based diet impacts your current portfolio, please don’t hesitate to reach out to the Alpha Real Estate Exchange team.