Parmesan, anchovies, and garlicky croutons. Chopped egg, avocado, and bacon. Tomato, balsamic, and Mozzarella. Great salads like the Caesar, Cobb, and Caprese come together in ways that make their sums greater than their parts.
Today, as salad-centric fast-casual concepts proliferate, salads have more parts—and are adding up to even greater sums. Whether counter-service salad concepts encourage customers to build their own or try chef-designed house specials, the results are impressive. That’s because the toppings and dressings now available to customers in many of these brands offer a wide variety of flavors and textures, making for limitless creations.
“I call it the ‘Five Topping Magic.’ That’s what makes salads special,” says Paul Steck, president and CEO of Saladworks. He recognizes a cardinal rule of consumer appeal: People want food they can’t make at home. Hand chopping dozens of ingredients and whipping up dressings every day is out of the question for most. “We can pull this off in 30 seconds,” he says.
Customers want varied textures, mouthfeel, colors, sizes, and temperatures in their salads, preferably all in one bite. Some chefs achieve this magic by bringing more preparation methods to the salad plate.
“Preparations on every layer of the salad are getting more complex,” Steck says. For instance, Saladworks’ kitchen staff marinates tomatoes in a simple dressing for half a day, almost like a quick pickle. Steck also likes to roast cruciferous vegetables like Brussels sprouts and broccolini, and then dresses them with olive oil. “Consumers have expanding ideas for what can be served cold.”
Dried and even candied vegetables bring an unexpected crunch to Crushed Red Urban Bake & Chop Shop’s salads.
“We candy poblano [peppers] in-house. I also like candied or caramel popcorn and nuts—a really well-coated kind like Fiddle Faddle [popcorn], which can stand up to moisture,” says Chris LaRocca, the Crushed Red founder who describes the three-unit St. Louis, Missouri–based concept’s cuisine as “artisan fast.”
LaRocca acknowledges that sometimes, with salads, the R&D process is about getting lucky more than anything. “Our jalapeño straws were a mistake that we made work,” he says. “We ordered onion straws and got the jalapeño instead, so we started playing around with them.”
Many new ingredients offered at limited-service salad concepts have become trendy across the national restaurant industry. For example, Freshii, a healthy fast-casual concept with locations in more than 60 cities and 12 countries, jumped on the beet bandwagon; the company serves a signature slaw with beets, carrots, and cabbage, lightly dressed with red wine vinegar and olive oil. When paired with a strong, crumbly cheese, it creates a version of the beet salads that are popular today.
“This goes well on any salad and works so well that we are looking at other slaws, like a broccoli slaw,” says Andie Shapira, nutritionist at Freshii.
Another ingredient rising in popularity today: kimchee. Freshii features the Korean specialty in a version that includes cabbage and carrots marinated in chile, honey, onions, ginger, garlic, salt, and pepper, all of which is aged three weeks in vinegar and herbs. It’s available in a limited-time offer bowl, but Shapira sees its potential on the menu beyond the LTO.
Marinated, pickled, and fermented vegetables like kimchee fit nicely with other vegetable preparations, says Danny Hicks, the commissary general manager at Just Salad. “We like to look at trends in the industry and decide how they make sense to a salad concept,” he says. “Our made-in-house Asian pickles are like a young kimchee and play off the kimchee craze really well.”
Pairing salad ingredients so that their flavors complement each other requires careful consideration. A popular salad pairing across the limited-service industry is fruits with cheese and nuts; in the ’90s, apples and blue cheese became a winning combination along with various types of nuts, especially walnuts.
“Together, fruit, nuts, and cheese are an enduring hit because they are a great way to bring in the salty-sweet combo that people love,” Shapira says. “Our mango, goat cheese, and almond combination is sweet and rich enough that people can skip the dressing.”
Dan Long, cofounder and chief culinary officer of Colorado-based fast casual MAD Greens, traces the fruit-and-cheese pairing back much further, to the Waldorf salad introduced in the late 1800s. That classic inspired MAD Greens’ Edgar Allan Poe salad of baby greens, marinated and grilled steak, apples, pears, walnuts, and blue cheese, with a port wine vinaigrette. He offers seasonal updates to the classic with the F.L.W. Salad, which features figs and Cotija cheese. For summer, his fruit-cheese-nut special is the Mighty Aphrodite, with Mozzarella, strawberries, cucumbers, and toasted almonds.
“It’s a satisfying combination because there’s a nice balance of crunchy, soft, sweet, and savory in every bite,” Long says. “And one of our rising salad stars, the Don Quixote, has Jack cheese and mango, along with corn and avocado, which finishes very nicely with a creamy ginger dressing.”
Matt Weingarten, culinary director of Dig Inn, an 11-unit fast casual with stores throughout New York City, says the “fat and funk” of fruit and cheese pair nicely with the sweet and sour notes.
“For our fall menu, we are playing with some nice contrast in a kale salad, pairing sweet dates against a savory rosemary granola,” he says. Weingarten is also developing a pickled mushroom and spinach salad that will balance the bitter and sour with “a counter-punch of shaved Parmesan cheese and sweet sultana raisins.”