A far cry from the fried-chicken salads of menus past, quick-serve and fast-casual restaurants are whipping up proprietary salad dressings in-house, playing with all kinds of nutrient-packed ingredients like quinoa and other grains, and tossing imaginative salads together that deliver flavorful bite after flavorful bite. All this innovation has broken the salad out of its greens-only box, leaving customers more satisfied and the salad section of the industry thriving.
“I believe the salad wave has just begun,” says Ana Chaud, founder and CEO of nine-unit, Pacific Northwest–based brand Garden Bar. “In our culture, salads have always been something we order either before a meal or as a side dish to complement a main item. I am confident we have crossed that hurdle in convincing our guests that salads can be a main meal.”
The creative juices are really flowing for the teams designing these salads, like at 16-unit MIXT. Some ingredients are added for texture and crunch, like the brand’s baked, housemade falafel crumbles or savory granola, while others are added to create an unexpected combination, such as roasted butternut squash with an al pastor sauce.
Globally inspired flavors are also surging through salad menus. Jeffrey Amber, culinary director at MIXT, sees za’atar and Tajín becoming popular, while Kacy Fowler, culinary connoisseur at 33-unit MAD Greens, has her eye on the flavor families of Israel, Africa, Latin America, and Cuba.
Then of course there’s the popularity of meat alternatives. “Meatless is the future,” says Janani Lee, chief sustainability officer at Just Salad, which has 37 locations along the East Coast. The brand responded to guests asking for more meat alternatives by offering Beyond Beef Meatballs in its Keto Zoodle Bowl and as a menu add-on.
A wider variety of vegetables are gaining in popularity, too, says Fowler—as are new ways to prepare them in salads, like roasting or glazing. Happy + Hale, with four units in North Carolina, cubes and roasts sweet potatoes and butternut squash and pickles veggies like onions for a Mexican-inspired bowl and cabbage for a kimchi-cabbage slaw. “A lot of people won’t take the time to do that at home,” says Tyler Helikson, cofounder and CEO.
For Chopt, a self-professed “creative salad company” with about 60 locations mostly on the East Coast, it’s all about the dressing. Cult-favorite dressings, like the Mexican Goddess dressing made from avocado, set the brand apart. “We’ve found cleverly delicious ways to add more flavor, like using peach preserves to sweeten our Honey Dijon vinaigrette. And we’ve even taken inspiration from unexpected places—like the hot mustard that comes with your Chinese takeout, turning it into a Hot Mustard vinaigrette that paired perfectly with a char-siu chicken salad,” says Ali Banks, culinary director.
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While all these trendy, innovative ingredients and flavors are exciting for guests, Fowler at MAD Greens warns that customer comfort zones need to be taken into consideration as well. “While our culinary guru loves playing around with fine dining or trendy ingredients like persimmons, pea tendrils, and jicama, we’ve found that these items aren’t as attractive to our typical MAD Greens guest. So we try to cater our menu innovation around flavors they can anticipate and picture themselves eating again and again on their lunch break or at a weeknight family dinner,” she says.
A big trend for almost all the salad brands today is the shift from lettuce-based salads to a hybrid of greens and grains. MAD Greens has been adding grains as a way to introduce a hearty earthiness to its salads, while Garden Bar is interested in providing high-quality nutritional value with ingredients like quinoa, hemp seeds, and chia seeds.
Vegetable rice from cauliflower and broccoli and noodles from zucchini are also further redefining what a salad is. “As people become more educated about what they’re putting in their bodies, interest in salad will only continue to grow,” Chopt’s Banks says. “It’s up to us, then, to keep it interesting. That means continuing to push the envelope on flavor and ingredients and never giving up on reimagining what a salad can be.”
Beyond what’s going on in a salad, a huge concern for salad fast casuals is how that salad is packaged. Customers who care about feeding their bodies clean, healthy ingredients care, too, about how their consumer behaviors impact the planet’s health.
Amber at MIXT sees more brands offering environmentally friendly, single-use packaging or encouraging zero waste and reusable alternatives.
Garden Bar has already been pushing a reusable container initiative that has proved successful in improving customer retention and repeat orders, Chaud says. But even though the brand’s disposable container is 100 percent compostable and biodegradable, sustainability was still top of mind for a lot of guests. “About eight months ago, we introduced our Rebox, which is a BPA-free, eco-friendly container that guests bring back and that is swapped for a new and clean one whenever they order a salad,” she says. The result of the initiative is guests feel less guilty about coming back to the brand three to four times a week. “It has been truly incredible,” she says.
Likewise, Just Salad launched one of the largest reusable programs in the industry with its signature reusable bowl. Guests can buy a reusable bowl for $1 and receive a free topping with every use. “Better yet, the program saves over 75,000 pounds in plastic every year and it’s been recognized by the EPA with a WasteWise award,” Lee says.
Innovation is clearly at the forefront for the salad-focused section of the fast-casual industry, whether that be on the menu with new combinations of better-for-you ingredients or in creating packaging that will leave customers guilt-free about their ecological footprint.