Traditional dressings still rule the roost at many quick-serve chains. Ranch varieties show up in 12.9 percent of limited-service salads, according to Technomic, and long-time favorites Caesar, Blue Cheese, and Thousand Island are also near the top.
“There’s little aversion to risk,” says Kraft’s Baxter, whose company provides nearly 40 different groups of dressings to all types of eateries across the country. Most dressings include low-fat and fat-free versions.
“A lot of decisions about the dressings on the menu are driven by marketing, which says we need to have a Caesar, a French, an Italian, a fill-in-the-blank,” he says. “There is room on the menu for maybe one or two out-there dressings that are less familiar.”
When restaurants add nontraditional dressings, they are often ethnically inspired options; increasingly popular are Hispanic dressings, which might include chipotle and cilantro, and Asian dressings, featuring ginger or sesame oil. These often “have less calories but pack a lot of flavor,” Steck says.
Various salsas are used as a salad ingredient, but the citrus salsa served with Taco Bell’s taco salads is different because the thick, chunky condiment is also the dressing.
“It adds a level of flavor and a level of freshness a creamy dressing can’t provide,” says Heather Mottershaw, a director with the chain’s Food Innovation Team.
The salsa is being redeveloped with the assistance of chef Lorena Garcia, who reviewed all of Taco Bell’s menu items and worked with the company to create its more upscale Cantina Bell creations.
“We looked at the citrus salsa and asked, Is this the best it can be?” Mottershaw says. The new version is “really upping” the quality with more flavorful ingredients, she says, including fire-roasted tomatoes and fire-roasted garlic.
While dressings carry a large portion of the flavor in limited-service salads, there are plenty of other non-protein ingredients that add to the taste. Among the most popular, according to Technomic, are tomatoes, cucumbers, croutons, onions, carrots, and olives.
Just don’t refer to them as toppings, Tender Greens’ Oberholtzer says.
“Calling them toppings sends a message that you’re just sprinkling stuff on top of greens,” he says. “Here, the ingredients are components.”
The ability to source fresh, often organic produce year-round has been a boon for salad chains. Tender Greens’ online menus mention the farm or artisan for each ingredient.
Sweetgreen also “gets excited about local produce,” Jammet says. “We have a great, national organic partner that gives us a source for produce throughout the year.”
Sweetgreen salads start at $6.95 and go up to $11. One of the most popular is the Guacamole Greens Salad, which includes a range of greens, avocado, grape tomatoes, red onions, and crushed tortilla chips topped with lime cilantro jalapeño vinaigrette and a lime squeeze. “It all works very well together,” Jammet says.
Avocado is the key ingredient in many other popular salads at various restaurants. Among limited-service companies, the fruit is the fastest-growing produce ingredient, showing up in 4.8 percent of salads last year, up from 3.3 percent in 2011.
“People love it,” Scicchitano says. It is also a superfood rich in monosaturated fat, which assists blood flow. That offsets the downside of its high calorie level.
Avocados are part of Corner Bakery’s top salad, the Chopped Salad, and are also in the chain’s popular Anaheim Scrambler breakfast and Anaheim Panini.
“It used to be you could only get avocados out of California,” Scicchitano says. “Now, they can be from Mexico or South America, like Peru, and so they are available all year round.”
Tossed’s top salad, the Southwest Blackened Chicken Salad, also has avocados, along with blackened chicken, Feta, a black bean corn salsa, chopped tomatoes, tortilla strips, and a citrus-chipotle dressing.
Corn and black beans are two more of the top emerging salad ingredients, as are garlic, Gorgonzola, scallions, apples, and dried cranberries, Technomic says.
The most popular salad nuts are walnuts, which are rich in flavor as well as omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, vitamin E, and other nutrients. The nuts go particularly well with apples, and that’s why several restaurant chains, including Tossed, feature
“Walnuts are incredibly versatile, and they work with so many other ingredients,” says chef, author, and TV cooking-show host Joanne Weir. “Lots of vegetables, as well as fruits, go well with them. That’s why they do so well in salads.”
The classic Gorgonzola and walnut salad—often including roasted beets—is a popular choice among chefs, as is a simple spinach salad with walnuts.
“There is a slight bitterness to the [walnut] skin, and that is very appealing to people,” Weir says. That is one reason the nuts work with the sweetness of fresh or dried fruit, she says.
Because of salads’ growing popularity, restaurants are continually experimenting with different dressings, vegetables, fruits, and nuts to come up with new menu items.
“We’ve been playing with all kinds of things,” Wendy’s Estrada says. That includes roasted beets, asparagus, and a corn and bean salsa. “It depends on what we can get in large enough numbers and at a price point that works for us.”