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'We'll always be a roast beef place': Inside Lion's Choice's counterintuitive new menu item

The company collaborated with Hungry Planet, a St. Louis-based manufacturer of plant-based meats, to provide a meal targeted to consumers called "flexitarians."
Credit: Lion's Choice
Lion’s Choice on Monday introduced its new, plant-based meatball sub which aims to please carnivores and vegetarians alike.

ST. LOUIS — How does a 55-year-old, local fast food restaurant chain stay relevant in an ever-changing and increasingly volatile marketplace? Lion’s Choice Chief Executive Michael Kupstas says it’s by offering more seats at the table.

The St. Louis-based company, best known for its roast beef sandwiches, has expanded its menu in recent years to meet increasing consumer demand for a wider variety of food. The company has already introduced soups, salads and a variety of meats, but now it’s trying something new.

Lion’s Choice on Monday introduced its new, plant-based meatball sub, an offering Kupstas said will please carnivores and vegetarians alike, while still providing “the same ridiculously good food and flavor” customers have come to expect from the company. 

The company collaborated with Hungry Planet, a St. Louis-based manufacturer of plant-based meats, to provide a meal targeted to a growing group of consumers referred to as "flexitarians."

Flexitarian, an amalgamation of the words “flexible” and “vegetarian,” is a term coined by dietitian Dawn Jackson Blatner more than a decade ago, and they are an ever-growing group of people whose diets are centered on plant foods, with the occasional inclusion of meat.

Brad Johnson, Hungry Planet’s chief commercial officer, said 90% of people buying Hungry Planet's plant-based products also have meat products in their shopping carts. By offering plant-based protein options, restaurants can decrease “veto votes,” or dissenting opinions of individuals who are afraid they won’t find an offering they want, when families and groups plan to dine out, Johnson said.

Getting butts into seats, so to speak, is more important to restaurants than ever before, as widespread macroeconomic concerns, inflationary pressures and supply chain snarls have affected business-to-business and business-to-consumer operations in recent months.

Lion’s Choice has experienced supply chain complications firsthand, Kupstas said. The company is currently tracking between 20-30 items on a regular basis and recently had to post an alert to its website explaining that some poultry products might not be available at times due to recent bouts of the avian flu, he said.

Prior to the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020, Lion’s Choice was expanding. The company opened nine stores from 2018 to 2020, with five of those stores marking the company’s expansion into the Kansas City metropolitan area, Kupstas said, adding that further Midwestern expansion is now possible.

The pandemic halted the company’s expansion for a bit, but also offered it a reset. Kupstas said the company saw its drive-thru sales increase drastically and its customers’ needs change, and moving forward, he said the company plans to incorporate this into its store design.

The company, with 34 locations, has blueprints and plans for a new restaurant design prototype catered to a post-Covid landscape: a smaller indoor dining room; more outdoor, covered seating; a designated pick-up area for online orders and third-party services; and a double drive-thru are all included.

Read more of the story on the St. Louis Business Journal website.

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