The Taco Shoppe features a build-your-own format. | Photos courtesy of Morrison Healthcare.
The Morrison Healthcare team at Cleveland Clinic in Ohio saw potential in one of the company’s microconcepts, Taco Shoppe. The idea for the concept was originally developed by Morrison about eight years ago when the foodservice provider started discussing bringing in quick service restaurant (QSR)-style concepts into the company, said Jeffery Quasha, senior director of culinary innovation for Morrison Healthcare.
Morrison’s hospitals were found to be competing against QSR restaurants in their areas, and tacos, were clearly in demand from its diners.
“We looked at fast casual trends. So, if you looked at Chipotle, [that] of course was the best example of it,” said Quasha.
Wendy Phillips, regional vice president for the Morrison Healthcare team at Cleveland Clinic, said it was clear that tacos would be a big success.
“We use a lot of data analytics and we looked at data analytics in the Northeast Ohio area, which is where Cleveland sits, and [looked at] what was selling well here, what were people asking for?” said Phillips.
The team also conducted a customer survey for caregivers at Cleveland Clinic which reinforced the idea that tacos would sell well.
When developing the concept, there were a couple key considerations, namely, ensuring that the concept would meet the demands of its diners. One such demand was vegetarian and vegan options. Phillips noted that Cleveland Clinic’s employee base is made up of a number of vegans and vegetarians.
“Now, vegan doesn’t always sell well. So having a concept that’s 100% vegan doesn’t necessarily end up being successful long term, but having a concept where we could provide vegan options was very important for this space,” said Phillips.
The first Taco Shoppe location opened in 2021 at Cleveland Clinic Crile Emporium and an additional location at Cleveland Clinic Main Campus International Cafe opened in 2022. The menu features a build your own format with tacos, burritos and bowls on offer. Diners can customize their meals with several types of rice, sauces and various protein options.
Journey to a second location
The concept saw success right away. Samuel Ross, executive chef for Cleveland’s Main Campus for retail, noted that a previous vegan concept saw about 110 transactions a day, but the taco concept opened with 350 transactions a day by its first week.
“We basically duplicated the amount of sales and the effect transplanted to the new location on the main campus. They had the same effect. So, it’s like people love tacos,” he said.
Developing the vegan options proved to a challenge. The plan was to have at least 50% of the protein options be plant-based. The team tested out recipes and there was a lot of trial and error along the way. Eventually, they established best practices for preparing the plant-forward options.
Another challenge was establishing the price point of the plant-forward cuisine and deciding how to present the food to customers.
At first, Ross said, the team was under the opinion that vegan options, like the jackfruit carnitas, or vegan chorizo, should be priced lower. But they quickly realized these ingredients were on par in quality to the meat options.
“Vegan options are as good as any other protein. The beef that we make is really good, but the [vegan] chorizo that we make is really good as well. So, they have the same price point. They have the same quality,” he said.
The taco concept concept does not diverge from Morrison’s culinary philosophy of leading with plants, noted Quasha.
“And [we’re] really trying to eliminate the line between, protein based, flexitarian and vegetarian,” he said. “For years, […] a vegetable plate was literally whatever the chef had, mashed potatoes, rice, or two or three vegetables that were on the line.”
But now, Cleveland Clinic’s Taco Shoppe paints a very different picture of what plant-forward can be.
Reducing red meat consumption
Since opening the two locations, Cleveland Clinic has reduced red meat consumption by 41% across the two cafes where Taco Shoppe is located. The team came to this conclusion after analyzing the amount of red meat that was purchased for its retail locations at those campuses, year over year, compared to sales and customer count.
“It wasn’t just decreasing red meat consumption within taco shop itself. It was decreasing that within the entire cafe,” noted Phillips.
This achievement falls in line with Morrison’s work in reducing meat consumption across the country, said Quasha. From January 2022 to September 2023, the company purchased over 48,000 pounds of jackfruit and Impossible products.
“From a global scale, that’s 48,000 pounds of meat that was basically not consumed with [the] switch to alt-proteins,” said Quasha. “Which I think it’s like 11 million square feet of land that was saved, or almost 766,000 pounds of carbon emissions that was reduced. “
At first, some customers were weary about the plant-forward options, noted Ross. But many of them were willing to try.
“And from there, people automatically started coming back for that. So, I think it is a thing of having the right product,” he said.
Another consideration is how the products are marketed, noted Quasha who said Morrison has leaned into “stealth health.”
“When you menu with wellness forward, you actually kind of push some people away,” said Quasha.
But at the same time, he said the team tries to lead with plants, especially in terms of putting plant-forward cuisine on the top of the menu since people look from the top down.
The biggest way to get diners on board has been sampling, the team agreed.
“People don’t know if they’ve never tasted it, and then you introduce it to them, then I think you’re more inclined to get them excited about it,” said Quasha.