Dressing Up a Salad

September 1, 2003

18 Min Read
Dressing Up a Salad

Gone are the salad days when a plate of restaurant greens consisted of bland lettuce and a few vegetables smothered in unimaginative orange or white dressing. Today’s salads, packed with character, bold flavors and texture, command center stage.

“Increased consumer demand has caused the foodservice industry to recognize the need for higher-quality salads,” says David Engel, director of marketing for Sargento Foodservice, Plymouth, WI. “Every restaurant operation is looking to enhance what it offers, from the lettuce that forms the base of the salad to the croutons that top it off.”

In its effort to introduce lighter fare and more sophisticated flavors, the chain-restaurant segment arguably has implemented the most dramatic changes in its offerings. Making good on a pledge to upgrade its greens, McDonald’s Corp., Oak Brook, IL, replaced its salad-in-a-cup McSalad Shakers with a new roster of salads in April. The four items, three entrée and one side, combine mixed greens, grape tomatoes and shaved carrots. Although iceberg and romaine make up the bulk of the lettuce, the mix is cut with six specialty baby greens, including arugula, radicchio and red Swiss chard.

The three entrée salads are topped with warm chicken, either grilled or crispy. In addition, the California Cobb salad features crumbled blue cheese, hickory-smoked bacon and chopped egg; the Caesar salad tosses in grated Parmesan cheese and garlic croutons; and the Bacon Ranch salad features Jack and Cheddar cheeses and bacon. Each salad has a different packet of Newman’s Own salad dressing — the side salad, for example, which sells on the Dollar Menu, pairs with light balsamic vinaigrette.

The fast-food chain hopes to benefit from the trend pioneered by Dublin, OH-based fast-food rival Wendy’s, which introduced a line of Garden Sensations salads last year composed of baby lettuces and garnishes such as Mandarin oranges and crispy rice noodles. An instant hit, those items allowed Wendy’s to siphon business from its competitors. They also showed that restaurant patrons will pay a premium for quality and perceived value.

McDonald’s, however, has targeted a specific audience rather than take Wendy’s broad-brush approach. It is aiming its new product line at health-conscious women who tend to avoid the burger giant, and mothers, who bring their children to the chain for Happy Meals but likely only purchase beverages for themselves, not food.

The fast-food chain has employed a variety of media to spread the word about its salads to female consumers. One TV ad shows a mom and her children in a van on a highway. The kids ask to stop each time they pass a McDonald’s billboard, but only when the mom sees a billboard for the chain’s salads does she agree. Two other ads show a cross section of women who are yoga enthusiasts, bikers, plumbers and stay-at-home moms. The pitch: “New McDonald’s Premium Salads. They’re surprising. Like you.”

Another marketing vehicle is the Internet. The burger chain has posted ads on websites known to be popular with women, such as iVillage.com and MSN.com. The Internet ads also encourage viewers to click through to McDonald’s website to learn more about the salads. According to Neil Perry, senior director of digital marketing for McDonald’s USA, the first day the ads ran, the fast-food company’s Internet site had a record number of hits in one day.

Although it is too early to determine the salads’ impact on the fast-food giant’s bottom line, Mark Kalinowski, an analyst with Smith Barney, New York, believes that domestic same-store sales could gain momentum based in part on the new product line. “The premium salads indicate to me that McDonald’s is moving in the right direction,” says Kalinowski.

Chains that feature ethnic fare also feature an expanding roster of greens, venturing beyond traditional salad guises with adventurous ingredients. El Pollo Loco, a 300-unit Mexican chain based in Irvine, CA, polled customers earlier this year about possible menu additions, and made-to-order salads came out on top, with a version featuring the chain’s signature grilled, marinated chicken rating highest. As a result of the enthusiastic response, that salad was rolled out immediately. According to Jon Miller, director of research and development, it filled a menu void. “You see this type of salad in casual or quick-casual restaurants, but not in quick service,” he says. “There’s a demand for quality in our segment of the industry, and we’re proving that quality can be fast and convenient.”

The chain also has added two larger, bolder-flavored versions to its line of salad bowls, which it has offered since 1998. The new salads — Chicken Fiesta and Chicken Caesar — feature chicken marinated in herbs, spices and fruit juices. The chicken is grilled to order and settled atop a bed of chilled greens with tortilla strips and cotija cheese. The Fiesta adds Cheddar and Jack cheeses, roasted corn poblano, guacamole, sour cream and chipotle dressing, while the Caesar includes roasted pepitas — a Mexican preparation for pumpkin seeds — and creamy cilantro dressing. One of four salsas — pico de gallo, avocado, spicy chipotle or house salsa — accompanies the salads and a serrano pepper, the chain’s signature garnish for the new salads, tops each one. “These salads embrace the growing demand for flavorful entrée-size salads and freshly prepared dressings,” says Miller.

Even quick-service operators with a decidedly non-salad bent are putting more greens on the menu. Famous Dave’s Bar-B-Que, Eden Prairie, MN, recently unveiled a number of protein-piled entrée salads. The new offerings combine mixed greens with a choice of toppings: Texas beef brisket, fried crawfish, pulled chicken, Georgia chopped pork, double-smoked ham and crispy fried chicken. All salads are topped with bacon, Cheddar cheese, diced tomatoes and green onions tossed in honey-barbecue dressing.

“The trend today is for entrée salads with strong flavor profiles,” says Lane Schmiesing, marketing vice president. “We’re a barbecue operation, so we’ve got the strong part covered. We just had to develop the salad.”

For some, a nontraditional approach is the way to incorporate greens on the menu. For example, to capitalize on the new trend of quick-service premium salads, Taco Bell Corp., Irvine, CA, has temporarily extended its stuffed-burrito line to include Caesar salad inside a tortilla. Billed as a portable Caesar salad, the new Chicken Caesar Grilled Stuft Burrito includes grilled, marinated, all-white-meat chicken, romaine lettuce, crunchy red tortilla strips and Caesar dressing, wrapped in a tortilla and grilled.

This summer, Shakey’s Inc., Garden Grove, CA, added a California Pizzarito, which is basically a salad on top of a hot pizza bottom. It features a thin crust baked with bean sauce, mozzarella and ground beef, which is then covered with lettuce, tomato, Cheddar cheese, sour cream and sliced fresh California avocados. “Avocados are considered a healthy, flavorful and, for lack of a better word, non-pedestrian ingredient,” says Susan Hughes, publicist for the California Avocado Commission. “As a result, they are used increasingly by chains looking to upgrade their entrée and side salads. Avocados provide a high-end taste and look.”

Upscale salads have impacted noncommercial sales as well. At Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, New Brunswick, NJ, last year’s $5.75 million dining-facility renovation doubled the length of the salad bar to 24 feet. Since then, sales of greens and their accompaniments have grown 30%, says Tony Almeida, director of food and nutrition/environmental services.

Top sellers are less-conventional items, such as roasted marinated vegetables, couscous, seven-grain salad, black-bean salad and various pasta salads. The greens selection has changed from 100% iceberg to a mix. “We throw in fancy baby greens and romaine so that people don’t get tired of the lettuce,” Almeida says. “It adds color and contrast and elevates the whole salad.”

The most popular dressing is low-calorie raspberry vinaigrette, but Almeida says this best seller and the spike in salad consumption result more from meeting existing demand, than proof that his customers have become more health-conscious. “The people eating our salads were eating salad somewhere else,” he says. “We’re seeing increased sales because we offer more options now.”

John Whitlatch, executive chef at the HDS Services-operated Ingham Regional Medical Center, Lansing, MI, considers entrée salads as critical to the financial success of his operation. Out of an average 500 to 600 meals sold per day at the center’s cafeteria, 200 to 230 of those are entrée salads. “They’re really a big percentage of our sales, and they’re good money-makers, too, especially when you’re doing a high volume,” he says. “Entrée salads have a lot of perceived value, and they enable us to offer more choices, which is important in a tiny hospital cafeteria. They also make great monotony breakers.”

Whitlatch rotates a repertoire of eight entrée salads, including Salmon Caesar and Chicken Tender salads. Prices vary, depending upon the cost of produce and protein items at any given time, but they top out at $3.35 for a full-meal salad. According to Whitlatch, customers accept the price variation. “They know it’s our procedure,” he says. “Besides, when the salad prices fluctuate, it’s really only a matter of nickels or dimes.” If necessary, he also cuts back on the protein portion from 6 to 4 oz.

At the University of Iowa, Iowa City, Barry Greenberg, associate manager of food services at Iowa Memorial Union, rolled out a batch of restaurant-style entrée salads last year in response to customer requests. “We’d been hearing that there really was a need for this, and that fit in with our plans to upscale the salads in order to generate more income,” he says.

The plan worked. Since unveiling the improved salads, the facility has experienced a 30% increase in sales, while still keeping food costs in line. The new salads average about $4.95 each, 50 cents to a dollar more than the previous cost of salads. The items are still packed in the same disposable, covered salad plates for grab-and-go, except at one site, where salads are tossed to order at a display station.

The current entrée-salad roster, boasting 11 new and revamped recipes, includes Shrimp Nicoise, Chicken Caesar, Seared-Salmon salad, Garlic-Shrimp pasta salad on greens, Italian chopped salad and two house smoked-turkey salad selections. Each grab-and-go version comes with either an individually wrapped bread stick or roll and a package of dressing. Greenberg substitutes in new seasonal salads about four times a year. “For the warmer weather, we go with more fruits in the salads and utilize local produce as much as possible,” he says.

To try out a different merchandising approach, Greenberg purchased a reach-in, open-air cooler for the salads in one location, which resulted in the salads “flying out of there,” he says. As a result of the response, he has switched to open-air coolers in other units. In addition, he developed a full entrée-salad training guide that features a digital photograph of each salad along with the recipe to ensure consistency.

Although some supermarkets have given up on salad bars, others, recognizing that price, selection and location are no longer enough to set them apart, consider them a key element in attracting customers, particularly to the perimeter of a store.

“We are strong believers in the perishables part of our business, and one of our top priorities has been to find the best ways to differentiate ourselves from the bigger box stores,” says Ron Dennis, president and chief operating officer of Virginia Beach, VA-based Farm Fresh. “We have found that by operating the salad bar as a separate sales and grossing department, separate and apart from our produce department, it not only enhances our overall perishables operation, but is also an extremely profitable part of our business.”

The supermarket chain has a dedicated salad-bar manager and a support staff of three to five associates at each of its 37 locations. That the $2.99-per-pound price has remained steady for the past five years contributes to the success of the program. Dennis says a segregated buying approach has been the difference between a good program and a great one. “All the fresh fruits and vegetables on display are fresh-cut for the department,” he says. “All of the product is purchased, stored, delivered and worked separate from the produce department.”

Each salad bar offers more than 60 fresh items daily that run the gamut from chunked ham to tuna, to egg and crab salads, to fresh fruits and desserts, to spinach and leafy greens. As a result, the bars have become a focal point of the stores. “There is not a department in our stores, save floral, that achieves a higher gross-profit percentage of our business than salad bars, which run anywhere from 1% to 1.75% of our total business,” Dennis says. “And the reputation of our salad bar has enabled us to reduce shrink to a dramatic level and thus improve profits because of the volume we do.”

Operating a safe and effective salad bar requires considerable work, he adds. “Every employee that works in our salad bar and prepared-foods departments are certified food handlers who are thoroughly trained on all aspects of safe food handling. Further, we have somebody staffed on our salad bars every minute they’re open,” says Dennis. All preparation is done close to the station, “out on the sales floor in front of the customer, as opposed to the back room.” The salad bars do not feature hot food and are set up and ready to go by 7:30 a.m.

While Dennis considers the supermarket’s in-store-café seating area to be important for some customers, the vast majority of salad-bar sales are takeout. Letting customers get in and out easily during the busy lunch and dinner hours is a priority. “We use mobile express lanes on wheels that are rolled out to an area adjacent to the salad bars between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., and 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. daily,” he says. “It’s important that people can come in and get checked out immediately, without having to go through the front end, or pay for it and go sit down and eat in the store.”

According to Samantha Mesrobian, director of marketing/prepared foods for Chef Solutions, Schaumburg, IL, “Retailers that get behind salad-bar programs are the ones that are really working hard to create destinations around the periphery. They are a such a natural fit with the whole, ‘get-in/get-out’ requisite of customers.”

In addition, successful salad-bar retailers are embellishing their efforts with a more upscale approach to the standard fare, she says. That includes more variety in fresh vegetables, better-quality products, dressings with more appeal and nontraditional salads.

As they become more affordable and widely available, specialty greens and lettuces such as arugula, mizuna, red leaf and frisée, have become solid sellers in operations across all segments. Popular unique salad fillers include “greens with bite to them, like arugula and radicchio, coupled with sweeter salad dressings,” according to Tony Merola, corporate executive chef for Litehouse Foods Inc., Sandpoint, ID. He also notes garnishes such as tart apples or fennel.“The American palate has really opened up in recent years and wants more complex flavors.”

At Bob Kinkead’s Colvin Run Tavern, Vienna, VA, endive and radicchio mix with Gorgonzola-stuffed pears, walnuts and pomegranate dressing in one first-course salad. “You have flavors that balance and complement one another: the bitterness of greens, saltiness of cheese, sweetness of pears, crunch of walnuts — and a dressing that ties everything together,” says Jeff Gaetjen, executive chef at the establishment.

Indeed, few foodservice operators today are content to let greens stand on their own. A wide variety of ingredients now adorn salads, and dressings range from the classic to the exotic. Ethnic and regional flavorings in particular have become major players in today’s salads. In its new line of premium salads, San Diego-based Jack in the Box includes an Asian Chicken salad topped with grilled chicken strips, red-onion slices, shredded carrots, Mandarin-orange slices, roasted slivered almonds, wonton strips and Asian sesame dressing. The Southwest Chicken salad, also new on the menu, features chunks of fajita-style chicken, black beans, roasted sweet corn, grape tomatoes, red-onion slices, spicy pepper-Jack cheese, cornbread sticks and creamy Southwest-style dressing. Toppings such as almonds, croutons, wonton strips and dressing are packaged separately, allowing guests to customize their salads.

Independent restaurateurs are also making entrée salads with ethnic and regional flair a priority. A Southwestern Caesar salad served at the Palace in the Cincinnatian Hotel, Cincinnati, combines roasted red peppers, cotija and ranchero cheeses and toasted tortillas. At Mimi’s Cafe, Anaheim, CA, Chinese chicken salad consists of sliced chicken breast tossed with romaine, green onions, cilantro, rice-stick noodles, wonton strips and a tangy dressing of sesame oil and rice vinegar. Also popular is a barbecued-chicken salad made with sliced chicken, lettuce, diced tomatoes, corn, jicama, cilantro, barbecue sauce and crunchy tortilla strips.

While side salads of greens paired with tomatoes and cucumbers have a place on menus, first-course offerings are also adopting more dressed-up versions, often using nuts and dried fruits. Lea, New York, sprinkles toasted almonds on Lolla Rosa lettuce, adds cherry tomatoes and tosses it with Dijon vinaigrette. The house salad at Amberjacks, Milford, CT, incorporates dried cranberries and pecans in a lemon balsamic dressing, while Metro Grill, Miami Beach, FL, mixes its greens with sunflower seeds and dried apricots. A salad at Janos in Tucson, AZ, consists of poached shrimp, Mexican papaya, pomegranate seeds and lime vinaigrette. Gilbert’s, Lake Geneva, WI, creates its signature Hawaiian bread salad with avocado, marinated onions, caramelized fennel and passion-fruit vinaigrette.

“Salads can bring complementary flavors and textures together for very interesting and balanced flavor combinations,” says Hughes.

For many chefs, cheese sparks salad creativity. One side salad at ReSette, New York, combines Gorgonzola cheese with arugula, endive, roasted hazelnuts, fresh plums and mango, topped off with a lemon dressing. Sage, also in New York, mixes baby spinach with Taleggio cheese, sautéed beef, crispy pancetta and avocado. Even chain operators are getting into the act. Dallas-based Maggiano’s Little Italy is test marketing a number of salads, including one featuring spinach and warm goat cheese.

“Cheese adds so much flavor,” says David Engel, director of marketing for Sargento Foodservice in Plymouth, WI. “It brings contrast to preparations, as well as sophistication, depth and richness.”

Salad dressings, of course, are crucial to the success of any salad. These flavor enhancers have to possess just the right combination of ingredients so as not to overwhelm or underwhelm the tastebuds. While the traditional core group of dressings — ranch, Italian, Thousand Island, blue cheese, Caesar and French — remain the most popular, nontraditional flavors are now moving to the forefront of the salad-dressing repertoire.

To accommodate consumers with more adventuresome tastes, salad-dressing manufacturers are responding with new products. “Certainly classic ranch dressing will always be a top seller, but you also have to offer variations on the theme, like country ranch and jalapeño ranch,” says Merola. “Even balsamic vinaigrette, which used to be considered one of the more exotic dressings, is evolving into new varieties like balsamic vinaigrette with an orange or lemon twist.”

Trish McGuire, a broker for the Hazelnut Growers of Oregon, is seeing an increased interest in so-called specialty dressings with nuts. “Hazelnut, for example, is a big deal here in the Northwest. Both the flavor and consistency of hazelnut salad oil is light,” she says. “And it’s works well with the balsamics.” Hazelnuts, she notes, are also low in saturated fat and a natural source of vitamin E and protein. “In general, nuts give you flavor and health benefits in one product, and consumers like that.”

While most independent restaurateurs make dressings from scratch, Rebecca Jones, purchasing agent and chief cook for Children’s Hospital Central, Madera, CA, is typical of foodservice operators who deal in large volumes and turn to the convenience of ready-to-serve dressings. Jones uses a variety of brand-name salad products. “With 2,000 daily visitors, it’s just too labor-intensive for us to make our own dressings,” she says. “We have a self-serve salad bar, which carries about six or seven dressing choices daily.”

A typical sampling includes ranch, blue cheese, and fat-free Italian, Thousand Island, ranch and raspberry vinaigrette. “Ranch may still be the No. 1 choice, but we now offer a sun-dried tomato basil dressing as well,” she says.

Salads clearly are emerging from a remarkable revolution and, no matter the greens, garnish or dressing, they have become a mainstay of the American diet. That suits foodservice operators just fine. “Salads are so flexible,” says Greenberg, “and as far as our customers are concerned, let’s just say we’d really hear about it if we tried to do away with them at this point.”

Deborah Silver is a business journalist based in the Chicago area who specializes in the foodservice industry. Silver’s coverage has included restaurant chains, food safety, industry and consumer trends, financing, and government policy, and she has written articles for numerous publications, including Chicago Tribune and The Washington Post.

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