Amid all the buzzing proliferation of fast-casual salad spots lies an invaluable lesson for all operators: A great salad list still draws a crowd.
On-the-go eaters. Health-conscious diners. Millennials. Baby boomers. Penny pinchers. Expense account execs. They all can be bowled over by well-dressed greens, especially when they’re hearty enough to act as stand-alone entrees and unique enough to qualify as an Instagram-worthy meal.
In fact, a 2016 study by foodservice research firm Technomic found that 40 percent of diners will choose a particular restaurant specifically for its salad offerings. Recently, fast casuals have been drawing diners away from casual dining and high-end operations by marrying ultra-fast service, trendy and nutritious ingredients with complex flavor pairings.
Understanding why these fast-casual spots are gaining traction is the first step in building a next-gen salad menu that straddles the line between tradition and innovation.
Change up the lineup
One diner’s kale is another’s little gem lettuce, which is why it’s become increasingly important to source supporting ingredients that discerning diners don’t often consume at home.
At Clever Greens, a fast-casual soups, salads and wraps concept in Omaha, Nebraska, diners clamor for elevated riffs on classics, including a Greek salad packed with artichoke hearts, chickpeas and a yogurt tzatziki sauce, as well as a grain-rich salad loaded with red quinoa, brown rice, avocado, carrots and scallions. These heavier supporting ingredients provide plenty of protein and acidity but also ensure the salads qualify as a complete meal. To generate healthy profits, Clever Greens sets the prices for most salads around $10, but protein add-ons like chicken, turkey or bacon can bump up the price to as much as $16.
Tony Gentile, Clever Green’s corporate executive chef, says sticking with classics has its advantages. Kitchen staff knows how to prep them and diners already know what they like. But clever twists can generate more word-of-mouth buzz. “We want to help diners transition over to the adventurous side and fall in love with their favorite salads all over again,” Gentile says.
Keep costs down by spreading versatile ingredients like grape tomatoes, hard-boiled eggs and sweet corn across your menu, which streamlines the prep process and minimizes waste. Or take the opposite approach: Build a one-of-a-kind salad around premium ingredients usually reserved for exotic fare.
At the national chain Sweetgreen, chefs heighten Hummus Tahina, a chopped romaine and shredded kale salad, with Middle Eastern accents like herb falafel, za’atar breadcrumbs and cucumber tahini yogurt dressing, plus exotic vegan proteins that even carnivores might be tempted to try.
By changing its salad offerings five times a year, Sweetgreen ensures it’s always sourcing fresh seasonal ingredients and staying on top of emerging trends. A concerted effort to avoid food waste has also paid dividends by inspiring the chain to add kale and cauliflower stems to some of its salads.
“Sourcing locally supports local food economies and keeps food fresher,” says co-founder and co-CEO Nicolas Jammet. “Fresher food tastes better, so that’s a win-win.”
Keep it regional
Never underestimate the appeal and profitability of building salads around beloved local recipes and seasonal ingredients. Often, focusing on regional flavors keeps regulars happy, while luring in out-of-towners looking for new flavors.
One of the best-selling salads at Fork & Salad in Maui is built around local papaya and packed with fiber-rich additions, including wheat berries, wild rice, sliced almonds, strawberries and feta cheese.
“Papayas take seconds to cut, seed and serve, meaning they have a terriffic shelf life and speak to the uniqueness of our brand,” says CEO Travis Morrin. “Grains cost less per ounce than greens do, meaning we can charge a little less for these menu items than normal signature salads and still have a good profit margin.”
Taking a short culinary field trip can also do wonders. When Chef Tom Dynan, co-founder of Unleavened Fresh Kitchen in Dallas, traveled to Georgia and tasted a killer fried chicken and bacon entree, he knew his customers back home would approve. Small tweaks to appease his health-conscious clientele, like gluten-free fried chicken breading and housemade buttermilk ranch, resulted in the creation of the Weekender, which became an undeniable hit.
“It’s crave-worthy comfort food that strikes a balance between being healthy and decadent,” says Dynan. “Since the Weekender can be ordered on a bed of greens, what might be a traditionally unhealthy dish is actually something guests can feel good about eating.”
Dress to impress
Traditional operations may not be able to compete with fast-casuals in terms of speed or customization, but focusing on creative presentations and advertising “secret sauces” can help narrow the gap.
The multi-unit Arizona-based Flower Child offers seven housemade dressings, including a lemon tahini with nutritional yeast for its “vegan ingredient salad.” Many customers choose salads not just for taste, but for their health benefits, so pointing out nutritional key words like “antioxidant,” “omega-3” and “superfood” can help boost sales.
Here, tahini adds body while nutritional yeast adds umami and a superfood health boost. “The richness of those ingredients perfectly balance the bright acidity of the lemon,” says Brad Borchardt, the company’s director of culinary standards.
Clever Greens’ chefs make all 13 salad dressings in-house. Ensuring the kitchen applies the right amount of dressing is equally important, not only in terms of flavor and food costs but also the visual appeal of the salad.
“We preach that each ingredient should be lightly coated, including the lettuce,” Gentile says. “The dressing should not dominate. If at any time the ingredients stick together and lie flat, you’ve used too much dressing.”
Fun garnishes like curry golden raisins and fried garlic chips at Fork & Salad add a finishing touch that diners might not easily replicate at home. But in the end, the most successful salads are often the ones that reflect the colors and flavors of the season.
“Vegetables offer the most diverse textures, colors and flavors in the food world, which keeps it fun, interesting and delicious,” says Borchardt.
GO PREMIUM OR GO HOME
Amp up summer salads with these trending add-ons.
MISO: A Japanese umami bomb packed with probiotics and protein; add it to dressings.
SMOKED SALT: Evokes pleasant memories of smokehouses and bacon.
TAMARI: A gluten-free soy alternative that’s not overtly salty but imbues warm tones.
PICKLED/FERMENTED VEGETABLES: Make them in-house for a punch of acidity.
SEAWEED: Sustainable and nutrient-dense with endless varieties to choose from.
SUMAC: A tart Middle Eastern spice that adds a red pop of color.