Wendy’s is launching a new line of premium salads after successfully testing the menu items in several markets.

The four salads will replace the company’s Garden Sensations roster during the third quarter, says Roland Smith, president and CEO of Wendy’s/Arby’s Group, parent company of Dublin, Ohio–based Wendy’s.

The latest upscale salads are Apple Pecan Chicken, Baja, BLT Cobb, and Spicy Chicken Caesar. Each features high-quality, brand-name ingredients along with all-natural, preservative-free dressings developed with specialty food partner T. Marzetti Co.

Two side salads, Garden and Caesar, have also been refreshed.

“We believe these new salads will drive positive transactions and sales,” Smith said during a Wendy’s/Arby’s Group earnings call last month.

Tests of the new salads began during February in Wendy's home market of Columbus, as well as in Nashville, Tennessee; Richmond, Virginia; and Salt Lake City. Consumer response has been “fantastic,” Smith said, with the salads gaining nearly a 10 percent sales mix.

Customer acceptance was positive despite the higher price tag of $5.99, up from $4.99 for the existing line. A new, mid-size version is being tested in Columbus and Nashville and carries a $3.99 tab.

Salad seems to be in the DNA at Wendy’s, which has been a quick-service restaurant leader in greens since 1979 when the chain launched the Garden Spot Salad Bar. The company was already known for the fresh lettuce and tomatoes it served on burgers.

The Fresh Salads to Go line was added in 1992, and Garden Sensations entrée salads—

developed to compete with casual and fast-casual restaurants—broke new ground in the industry when they were introduced in 2002 to positive customer acceptance.

A number of quick-service restaurants followed suit. Competitors such as McDonald’s and Burger King continue to offer premium salads, but they have fewer varieties.

“Wendy’s has definitely been a leader in salad” among the quick-service crowd, says Jeff Davis, the Dallas-based president of restaurant consulting firm Sandelman & Associates. “Salads are not a huge part of the menu, but they’re a huge part of Wendy’s image,” which revolves around serving higher-quality products than most quick-service food operations.

The new entrée salads, which will also carry the Garden Sensations title, are a “very normal extension of a very strong product line,” says Mark Kalinowski, a financial analyst who covers the restaurant industry for investment firm Janney Montgomery Scott.

He says reinvigorating an existing line is to make sure the chain “maintains its edge in terms of what customers think of the brand.” That's especially important now that more consumers are paying closer attention to what foods make up their meals.

The Apple Pecan Chicken Salad received particularly strong feedback from customers in test markets, says Liz Geraghty, Wendy’s vice president of new products marketing.

It features Wendy’s new blend of lettuce and nine types of field greens, topped with blue cheese crumbles, U.S.-grown Granny Smith and Pink Lady apple pieces, roasted pecans, dried Ocean Spray cranberries, and grilled chicken. It is served with a pomegranate vinaigrette dressing.

Consumer response has been “fantastic,” Smith said, with the salads gaining nearly a 10 percent sales mix.

The Baja Salad includes the new blend of lettuce and greens topped with cheddar and pepper jack cheeses, guacamole made with Hass avocados, freshly prepared pico de gallo, tortilla chips, and Wendy's chili. The dressing is creamy red jalapeño.

The lettuce and greens blend is also the base of the BLT Cobb Salad, which features Applewood smoked bacon, tomatoes, blue cheese crumbles, chopped hard-boiled eggs, and grilled chicken, served with a creamy avocado ranch dressing. The Spicy Chicken Caesar offers romaine lettuce topped with grape tomatoes, shaved asiago cheese, seasoned croutons, and Wendy’s spicy chicken, along with lemon-garlic Caesar dressing.

All of the salads continue to be made fresh daily. They will replace the current lineup of Mandarin Chicken, Southwest Taco, Chicken BLT, and Chicken Caesar salads.

Geraghty says the salad update is partly a response to two major consumer trends: exposure to different cuisines and cultures and the demand for fresh, natural ingredients.

“Guacamole on a salad was not accepted much 10 years ago; today it is expected,” she says. “And our customers have told us that the freshest ingredients make the best salads.”

As consumers’ tastes expand, it’s important to keep up with them, Geraghty says. That is one reason for the exotic pomegranate vinaigrette dressing and bold flavor of real crumbled blue cheese, both of which, it turns out, were well received in test markets.

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