Fries may be the old standby side, but premium salads are the rising stars at many burger joints.

Forward-thinking, better-burger brands like Hopdoddy Burger Bar, Smashburger, and Farmer Boys are rolling ahead of the fast-casual game by offering fresh salads with unique spins. And with natural ingredients and clean menus landing on the National Restaurant Association’s “What’s Hot” report of top trends for 2018, it’s a fair guess that many others will soon follow suit.

Serving organic greens, Hopdoddy’s salads include premium proteins like bison, black-bean veggie patties, and Akaushi beef, while Smashburger features goat cheese, dried cranberries, and pumpkin and sunflower seeds. At Farmer Boys, the Farmer’s Chopped Cobb is the No. 1 selling menu item, with grilled chicken, avocado, double-smoked bacon, cage-free eggs, and cheddar cheese.

“Guests are looking for, want, and crave salads,” says Mark Adair, vice president of food and beverage at Austin, Texas–based Hopdoddy Burger Bar. “And it’s our responsibility to provide solutions for those cravings.”

Tom Ryan, founder and CEO of Denver’s Smashburger, believes salads increase visit frequency. “There’s a market for it, and salads and menu variety drive occasions,” he says. “They’re not easy to do with integrity and require a lot of care, but most of the items in our salads are things we also use in our better-burger recipes.”

Burgers may still be one of America’s favorite foods, but not every group of diners is filled with burger lovers. These fast-casual chains catering to the popular health vote not only differentiate themselves, but they also capture new markets, pushing toward future success.

“We care as much about the quality and taste profiles of our salads as we do our burgers, because I believe people judge you on your lowest common denominator product,” Ryan says. “Not having salads, even though you’re burger-centric, sets consumers up for opting out of frequency-based or group-based occasions.”

About half of Smashburger’s business happens at dinnertime—a daypart heavily populated by families. Ryan says as salads index high among women, and dads like enjoying a burger and beer, Smashburger can accommodate both parties without losing that customer base. Restaurateurs also agree that being early adopters of items like salads and putting a twist on traditional flavors help them prosper.

“If you want to remain relevant and top of mind, you have to have salads. It’s no longer the veto vote; it’s the vote,” Adair says. “Nowadays, guests are looking for them, and if you want to capture their heart, imagination, and taste buds, salads are essential.”

When Hopdoddy noticed a void on the menu, its assortment of contemporary salads came to fruition. The brand constantly refreshes its offerings using ingredients from local farmers to ensure each store offers in-season variety.

Since salads aren’t necessarily in most burger concepts’ wheelhouse, operators rely on collaborative efforts involving staff, guests, market research, trends, and testing to build and optimize that new portion of the menu.

“We’ve done everything from wedge to Caesar, because salad culture changes faster than burger culture,” Ryan says. “We’re obligated to have one foot in familiar, traditional recipes and one foot forward into where the mass-market appeal for salads is.”

Smashburger gathers insights by first talking with its national distributor to find what’s trending up in popularity or volume for produce. Then the brand reviews menus at popular restaurants a cut above fast casual for a landscape view. Finally, Smashburger utilizes its sister concept, Tom’s Urban, for final expertise.

For California-based Farmer Boys, chief marketing officer Larry Rusinko says, “We tap our consumers, present different concepts to them, then measure responses.” After its newer Southwest Chicken Salad proved a winner with customers, it placed the item into a test market to watch sales performance, measured it against concept testing, and ultimately rolled it into the system.

Beyond perfecting their recipes, operators agree that aesthetics are key, both in the form of cool photos online and visually compelling bowls in-store. Explanations about what’s unique and what sets the brand’s salads apart—such as being made to order or featuring all-natural sweeteners in dressings—work, too.

At Hopdoddy, employees on the front lines are among the best sources of marketing, Adair says. Because team members taste the food at meetings, they’re able to answer guests’ questions and also share their own enthusiasm.

The potential return on investment for salads might just be the final push to get operators onboard. “We listen to customers, care about what they want to eat, and develop salads to meet those needs,” Rusinko says. “By getting that right and pleasing our customers, the bottom line takes care of itself.”

Adair and Ryan echo that salads create a significant enough revenue to show they’re adding value. By increasing traffic and giving diners more opportunities to visit, Adair says, salads definitely boost revenues.

To do salads well, burger brands advise making them to order, integrating them into the restaurant’s platform, and—because modern, discriminating customers aren’t interested in them—avoiding pre-packaged varieties.

“Stay true to your brand, listen to your customers, and deliver the best you can to meet customer needs,” Rusinko says. And when it comes to putting premium salads on burger restaurant menus, Adair puts it best: “Don’t wait another day.”

Health & Wellness, Menu Innovations, Story, Farmer Boys, Hopdoddy Burger Bar, Smashburger