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.”
Cheese can also help cool the heat of spicy ingredients. This dynamic is at play in Crushed Red’s LTO hit called This Pear is on Fire, a salad of greens, spinach, avocado, chile-dusted and sliced Anjou pears, dried cranberry, bacon, goat cheese, jalapeño honey mustard, and candied walnuts. LaRocca says customers like the sweet heat, which he describes as “wimpy” on the heat scale.
“It’s not alienating at all. You get a lot of flavor, then some heat on the back end, just enough to let you know it’s there,” LaRocca says.
Varied texture is as important to salads as a range of flavors. The smooth creaminess or chewiness of cheese helps balance crunchy greens and nuts. Crisp, crunchy bits—beyond basic croutons—help finish off the texture mix in a salad.
“We are trying all different crunch elements,” Weingarten says. “Nowadays, we have to be extra sensitive to nut allergies, so we are using seeds quite a bit more and are experimenting with brittles, also known as savory granolas.”
Crispy apple chips bring an unexpected crunch to an Autumn Harvest salad at Saladworks, which also features the chewiness of turkey and dried cranberries. Quinoa, prized for its protein and nutritional value, also has a nice chewiness when served cold on salads.
“It was unknown just five years ago, but now quinoa is used everywhere. We use an all-natural red version with a nice nutty, earthy flavor. It’s also really pretty,” Steck says.
Red quinoa is also a favorite at Newk’s Eatery, where it packs extra power to a Red Quinoa and Kale salad.
The DeLUX Berry Crunch salad at Crushed Red features multicolored “rainbow quinoa,” blueberries, Black Mission figs, Feta cheese, and house-made granola with kale and mixed greens. It’s dressed with lemon-agave nectar dressing so that the acid in the lemon counteracts the sweet berries and fig.
Like the icing on a cake, the dressing is what finishes a salad. David Laborde, director of product development at Salata, a Houston-based salad-bar concept, says the dressing either makes or breaks a salad.
“We make our own salad dressings and are finishing up the process of building a central commissary in Houston, where we can produce, package, and send out the dressings that each store needs,” Laborde says. “Our dressings set us apart and are what help us make our brand. As we grow, it’s important for us to control consistency and be able to make changes quickly, like switching a gluten-free soy sauce to ensure a recipe stays gluten-free.”
This attention to detail also streamlines Salata’s process. Laborde can train three people in a central location as opposed to a few people at each location. He now has tighter controls on temperature, specifications, and traceability on a production line that will produce 13,000 gallons of dressing a month for 43 stores (another 10 stores will be added by the end of the year).
Signature dressings help drive the build-your-own approach for salad concepts.
“People mix and match our sauces and dressings, like combining ranch dressing with buffalo sauce for a hot and cool effect,” Freshii’s Shapira says. “We have a peanut sauce that people love with our Asian sesame dressing to give any salad an Asian flavor.”
Mark Kulkis, CEO of Chop Stop, an emerging Burbank, California–based salad concept, also sees dressings as a way to stay on top of flavor trends.
“Sour is in. Both our Lemon Vinaigrette and Cilantro Lime dressings are very popular,” he says. “These sour flavors also naturally lend themselves to the lower-calorie, oil-based dressings, which are becoming popular as more people focus on their weight and health.”
Guests increasingly want to build their own meal with the flavors and ingredients they can choose from long lists of options, Long says. MAD Greens handcrafts more than 20 salad dressings to provide guests a wide flavor variety, ranging from the typical ranch and balsamic to some more flavor-forward recipes, many of which take cues from traditional, ethnic flavor profiles. For example, his Sriracha Almond Vinaigrette and Miso Sesame Vinaigrette take cues from traditional South East Asian flavors. The Roasted Red Pepper dressing has Ethiopian berbere influences.
“Exotic herbs and spices like verbena, hyssop, and sumac are becoming popular. I’ve also noticed an increasing popularity in pickles and other fermented foods,” says Long about his research.
Spotlighting local, regional, and seasonal ingredients is another trend that fits perfectly with the salad category. Long points to a seasonal Tabasco Prickly Pear Vinaigrette as a way to pay homage to the local landscape. “Our new Arizona seasonal salad, the F.L.W., was inspired by the prominent cacti in Arizona,” he says. “The dressing complements the figs really well to bring out an earthy tone in the salad.”
Composed, classic, hand-crafted, or customer-made—no matter how you menu salads, it’s all about the mix.
“A salad should be built on tension and contrast, so that you get little flavor bursts while eating it,” Dig Inn’s Weingarten says.