Remember your very first experience at a restaurant salad bar?
Of course you don’t, and there’s a perfectly good reason why: Salad bars of the sort that began popping up in casual-dining spots, hospital cafeterias, workplace lunchrooms, and college dining halls in the 1970s and 1980s were about as enticing and memorable as tap water.
Most of these rectangular produce way stations featured greens no more exotic than iceberg lettuce, along with an uninspired array of add-ins ranging from celery and radishes to cherry tomatoes, purple onion slices, and hard-boiled egg chunks. Your dressing options were usually limited to the likes of Thousand Island, ranch, creamy Italian, and red wine vinegar. If you weren’t on a diet, in other words, there simply wasn’t much of an incentive to take a stroll around the sneeze guard.
In more recent years, though, restaurant chains have figured out that salads can be big business when a broader range of more distinctive, more flavorful, and higher-quality items are incorporated. And so—just as it’s now possible to get tasty, pre-made Southwestern, Asian, Mediterranean, or Mexican-style salads at the drive thru—it’s become customary for chains’ self-serve salad stations to feature wholesome, higher-end fixin’s such as roasted vegetables, grilled chicken breast pieces, house-made herb croutons, dark leafy greens, heirloom tomatoes, pastas, and rosemary-garlic potatoes.
Having addressed the quality and variety issues, the question now becomes: How could chains turn the standard salad bar experience into something truly novel and noteworthy? After all, while the contents have gotten more impressive, the business of visiting a salad bar remains almost identical to what it was in 1978. You order; you amble over to some sort of freestanding receptacle that contains all of the available salad ingredients; you load up your plate or bowl with your preferred perishables; and you beat it back to your table.
This process works, certainly, and it will likely continue to be the norm well into the future. But it’s all function, without much thought given to form or to fun. For those chains seeking to boost both salad-derived revenue and customer satisfaction, a better alternative might be to separate the various salad components and give each category its own dedicated island, cart, or buffet table. The idea would be to ensure that each constituent salad part is tempting and tasty in its own right, thereby enhancing both the real and perceived value of the final product in a way that could justify a premium price.
Let me explain: Imagine if, rather than a single salad bar, a restaurant’s designated salad area was ringed with three to four carts or booths, as though each element were being served from a street-food cart in Mexico City, Singapore, or Rome. At a Mexican quick-serve or fast-casual chain, patrons would begin their journey by picking up a pre-portioned bowl of Little Gem Lettuce or South American cabbage. They would then visit a protein cart offering shrimp Veracruz, seasoned ground beef, or spicy grilled habanero chicken strips. At the next stop, they could pluck a skewer of fresh roasted peppers, onion, and tomato from some sort of warming device before heading to a condiments station offering everything from Cotija cheese to miniature pupusas (stuffed corn-flour flatbreads) to tantalizing dressings like chile-lime, tomato-cilantro, or ancho-chile ranch.
At an Italian chain, the formula could be just as distinctive and fun: a protein cart with rosemary-thyme chicken, grilled garlic shrimp, or marinated pork medallions; a produce cart with grilled eggplant, zucchini, and summer squash; or a condiments station with garlic-bread croutons, Pecorino Romano cheese bits, olive tapenade, and herb-balsamic and pesto dressings.
Effectively, what you’d have is a much more versatile, intriguing, and colorful salad experience that would lend itself to constant reinvention. Instead of serving as a side, substitution, or second banana to the menu’s marquee offerings, the cart concept would elevate the basic salad bar to the level of a feature attraction. And that evolution could well translate into higher sales at the lunch and dinner dayparts.
Particularly for those chains seeking to court more Gen-Y consumers, whose penchant for provocative ethnic flavors, customization, healthier choices, and endless variety is well documented, a new model salad “bar” might just fit the bill. And as chains consider more interesting ways to make their healthful offerings something other than afterthoughts, I believe it may be worth exploring the possibilities in tossing a new kind of twist into the quick-serve salad mix.