Menu Innovations | March 2010 | By Vanessa K. Bush

Raising the Salad Bar

Innovative additions, broader selections, and a renewed interest in healthy food options are drawing consumers back to the salad bar.

The salad bar–buffet concept is ripe for innovation. That’s the word from the experts who’ve seen the salad bar–buffet evolve from an idea that “was once considered to be something that took away from a restaurant’s cachet to one that has tremendous opportunity,” says Samuel Borgese, president and CEO of CB Holding Corp., the parent company of Charlie Brown’s Steakhouse, Bugaboo Creek Steakhouse, and The Office Beer Bar & Grill. As consumers become more mindful about watching what they eat when they eat out, the salad bar is one feature that satisfies what diners are seeking, Borgese says. The salad bar–buffet feature also allows people on their lunch hour to get in and out of a restaurant quickly with a satisfying meal that also offers good value.

The key to success, experts say, is all in the mix. It’s no longer enough to stock the buffet with a few salad dressings, some iceberg lettuce, and assorted shredded vegetables and expect that alone to drive business. Consumers are looking for much more: a variety of vegetables and protein options; seasonality in what’s offered; sourcing that comes from local farmers; organically grown produce when possible; and a sense of comfort that the food provided is free and clear of bacterial contaminants such as E. coli.

Redefine the Buffet

The Rock Wood Fired Pizza and Spirits chain of fast-casual restaurants, based in Washington state with franchises in Vancouver and other parts of Canada, prides itself on offering a variety of choices to its diners, says Sarah Whitfield, a public relations representative for the chain.

The buffet concept expanded to include more than produce on its salad bar, she says.

“We have a pretty extensive buffet, offering a mix of our popular pizzas, salad, pastas, and dessert,” she says. “Having said that, we are always trying new pizzas and pastas on the buffet. This is a great way for us to test new menu items as well.” One of the latest items added to the buffet menu in 2009 was Stromboli, an idea that tested so well it will be expanded to all locations this year.

Pizzas, which are at the base of the concept’s buffet offerings, include The Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy, a meat lovers’ pie with pepperoni, meatballs, sausage, and peppered bacon. Another big seller is the Crazy Train, with pepperoni, hot Italian sausage, peppered bacon, caramelized onions, and hot cherry peppers. “People love them because of the toppings. We use the best stuff and hand-craft our pies so each one tastes great,” Whitfield says.

Variety isn’t limited to large chains. Even smaller mom-and-pop shops are reinventing the idea of made-to-order salad bars. Island Salad, a Caribbean-inspired restaurant based in Harlem, New York, offers both pre-made salad options such as Jerk Chicken, an Asian Rasta salad with grilled teriyaki chicken, crispy noodles, and sesame ginger dressing; the Caribbean Cobb, which includes grilled chicken, hard-boiled eggs, black olives, croutons, and tomatoes dressed with a mango citrus vinaigrette; and custom-made salads where consumers can select from three kinds of greens (mesclun, spinach, or romaine), add assorted fruits and vegetables such as dried cranberries, mandarin oranges, or sunflower seeds, select from premium proteins such as roast beef, salmon, or shrimp, and layer on mostly house-made dressings ranging from low-fat Caribbean Mango to Jerk Vinaigrette to Curry Dijon.

Customized salads, tossed to order, guarantee a fresher experience for diners, says Berge Simonian, owner and concept developer of Salata, a Houston-based chain of salad bar–buffets that emphasize personalization. “I developed Salata to give diners the best possible salad,” he says. “For a salad to be really good, you want the ingredients to be absolutely fresh, and the dressings to have great flavor. And then you have to toss the salad to distribute the dressing evenly. That’s when you have a great salad.”

Salata is staffed by salad tossers who fill salad bowls with unlimited ingredients selected by diners and then toss them with a choice of eight all-natural, house-made salad dressings. Toss-ins include basics such as cucumbers, tomatoes, and carrots to more unusual items such as sundried tomatoes, chickpeas, jalapeños, snow peas, blueberries, strawberries, and grapes. There is also a selection of cheeses—blue, feta, Parmesan, and cheddar—and seeds and nuts, including pumpkin seeds, walnuts, and almonds. Protein selections range from chicken breast flavored with pesto or chipotle or marinated with herbs, to baked salmon, marinated shrimp, and crab meat.

But the innovation doesn’t stop there. Salata also offers Salad Wraps, combining any of the ingredients from the salad bar wrapped up in a fresh flour tortilla and available in four varieties: chipotle, wheat, spinach, and traditional flour. Simonian says he has been fine-tuning the Salata concept for the past decade. A previous owner of other fast-food food-court concepts, he felt salads were the wave of the future.

“All the statistics on what diners want today point to concepts that offer four trends: build-your-own options, light and healthy offerings, casual and quick service, and meals priced under $20 per person,” he says. “Salata combines all four trends. The main offering is light and healthy; served quickly in a casual, sleek environment; costs less than $10 per person; and diners get to select every ingredient themselves.”

Seasonality

Eating produce when it is at its peak makes sense from both a freshness and flavor standpoint but seems to be something we’ve gotten away from as produce from other countries has become more widely available year-round. Yet with a rising consumer outcry to support local, sustainable farmers, some restaurants are taking notice and action. Borgese of CB Holding says that the Charlie Brown restaurants, which are based on the East Coast, make it a point to offer produce on its buffets that are “indicative of the region,” he says.

“In the tri-state area—New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia—we have access to some of the richest farmland in the world,” Borgese says. “We teamed up with New Jersey Farm Fresh as a produce provider, for example, for that very reason. We want to support, local, sustainable produce that circles around seasonality.”

The new menu roll-out Charlie Brown introduced in early January with plans to expand to all 49 units this month is indicative of this commitment to freshness and top quality. In addition to focusing specifically on top-quality, USDA-choice beef, the company also made sure the salad bar offerings—including pre-mixed pasta salads, seasonal fruits, and a range of proteins—have also been refreshed to raise the bar.

Organic Growth

Despite the economic climate, organically grown produce is still an investment consumers are willing to make. A recent survey from market research firm Mintel shows that nearly 40 percent of consumers claim they haven’t changed organic product purchasing habits because of the recession, and only 3 percent have stopped buying organic products altogether.

“Heavy users of natural and organic foods and drinks are most likely to indicate they’ve traded down to less expensive organic options,” says David Browne, senior analyst at Mintel. “However, less-frequent consumers of organic products have shown they haven’t shifted their behavior. This is good news for the organic food and drink market, as this group may begin to buy more once recession-related fears begin to fade.”

“All the statistics point to four trends: build-your-own options, light and healthy offerings, casual and quick service, and meals priced under $20 per person.”

The family operated, San Francisco–based Mixt Greens restaurant chain plans to forge ahead with its expansion plans in 2010, opening four units in downtown Washington, D.C., and looking to move into Los Angeles and Seattle. The “eco-gourmet” chain, which offers locally grown products, including herbs and lettuces picked from an “edible living wall” in the restaurants, prides itself on serving food that is organic and sustainable.

Like Island Salad, Mixt Greens offers pre-made salad options, but the “design your own” salad bar–buffet is its signature feature. There are five kinds of greens: butter lettuce, red leaf, baby spinach, romaine hearts, and “mixt” greens. Staples include such unconventional ingredients as jicama, roasted zucchini, and edamame. For an additional $1, consumers can add specialties such as roasted golden beets, caramelized onions, marinated tofu, or soba noodles. Proteins are also available, ranging from Moroccan-spiced grilled tuna and coriander-crusted seared ahi tuna to house-roasted turkey breast and spice-rubbed pork tenderloin.

And just so the consumer is clear on the chain’s commitment to going green, each menu includes this statement: “Your eco-gourmet meal supports local farms, organic produce, sustainable agriculture, green building, renewable energy, and healthy eating.”

The question often raised when it comes to using local resources is how to make it work efficiently and effectively. The Leopold Center for Sustained Agriculture conducted a set of interviews recently to identify what it takes to bring together small- and medium-sized producers and retail and foodservice distributors. Its findings offer valuable information to quick-service and fast-casual restaurant owners looking to distinguish their offerings by using local sourcing.

More than half of the distributors interviewed agreed that locally grown or produced foods were preferred by customers and that products that appeal to regional tastes would hold interest for their customers. Similarly, retail distributors said that “price is not everything,” but that customers would pay what they thought was a reasonable price for “value” in the product. “Natural,” “free of antibiotics,” and “contains no hormones” were attributes thought to be preferred by customers of 40 percent of retail distributors. Both foodservice and retail distributors emphasized the importance of having a “product with a story,” where the story became part of the value customers are willing to pay. Inadequate supply and inconsistent product, however, were cited as reasons that distributors would avoid regularly purchasing from individual producers.

Safety Concerns

E. coli bacteria and other food-borne illnesses have raised concerns among some consumers about the safety of eating from salad bars. That is where companies like Steritech come in. Steritech performs more than 100,000 inspections worldwide each year for its clients, from grocery stores and supermarkets to restaurants, hotels, resorts, and food and beverage processing and warehouse facilities. Beth Cannon, a senior food safety consultant at the Steritech Group, says the company provides food safety, quality assurance, and pest-control programs from the farm to the table.

The bottom line: Food needs to be kept fresh and rotated often to maintain a good standard.

“I think that it’s important to provide the same great-quality food on the buffet as the guest would get by ordering off the menu,” Whitfield says.