It’s not easy being greens. Even though leafy vegetables—lettuces, spinach, cabbage, and more—are generally the soul of salads served in most American restaurants, the greens are often overshadowed by other ingredients—notably toppings and dressings—that serve to entice consumers. After all, salads are often named either for their toppings or culinary style.
Nonetheless, greens make up the biggest part of the salad in volume, and their taste, texture, color, and nutritional value are critical to making these menu items a success.
“Greens are awesome,” says Theo Roe, an assistant professor at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, New York. “One of the greatest things you can do for your health is have a good green salad.”
Each leafy vegetable offers its own characteristics. Some are sweet, while others are bitter. Some provide a crisp hardiness, and many are soft and delicate. The colors can range from light or dark green to red or purple.
“There are so many options and so many greens readily available in the lower 48 states,” Roe says. “Here in the Hudson Valley, many varieties can be grown nine months of the year.” In some places, they grow all year.
One major quick-service restaurant company, Wendy’s, focused on greens earlier this year as part of a marketing campaign, highlighting the freshness of its salads with a commercial featuring its advertising pitchwoman in a huge field of romaine lettuce. A companion Internet video uses a point-of-view camera to follow the odyssey of romaine from the field to the restaurant.
“For us, it’s wanting to tell our story to customers about the ingredients and what separates us [from competitors],” says Frank Vamos, director of brand communications for the Dublin, Ohio–based burger chain.
For limited-service restaurants, which are often under the microscope when it comes to the nation’s health issues, using leafy vegetables—especially those with a high nutritional content—in salads provides a good antidote to complaints, Roe says.
Greens are “of the utmost importance” at the aptly named Sweetgreen, says Michael Stebner, director of culinary innovation for the Washington, D.C.–based fast-casual chain. “They’re low in calories, fat, and sodium and high in nutrition. And they fill you up.”
Still, he says, the top priorities of salad greens are taste and texture. “We put taste ahead of everything else,” Stebner says. “The healthy attributes are a side benefit.”
Selecting the components for a salad can be a complex process, but “the first and simplest part is to choose greens with the right flavor, mouth texture, and color you’re looking for,” says Ric Scicchitano, executive vice president of food and supply chain at Corner Bakery Café. The Dallas-based chain features more than a half-dozen leafy salads at any time.
“We pretty much have all the [popular varieties]—romaine, iceberg, spring mix, baby arugula, spinach, and kale,” he says. “The good news for us is when we walk into our coolers, we have a lot to choose from.”
A study this year by foodservice data provider Food Genius found that 66 percent of the restaurants nationwide offer at least one salad. About half of all menus with salads are at fast-casual restaurants, while quick serves represent about 16 percent of the mentions.
The report found that the most popular type of salad base mentioned on menus at quick-service and fast-casual establishments is generic lettuce (57 percent and 62 percent, respectively), followed by romaine, salad greens (both in excess of 25 percent), spinach, and cabbage.
“There’s a variety of greens as a salad base,” says Joshua Sim, senior data analyst at Food Genius. “We do see some specificity in greens being called out, as quick-service and fast-casual restaurants try to separate themselves from the pack.”
Iceberg lettuce, a 20th century favorite, is not mentioned as much these days, but other greens are gaining traction, most notably highly nutritious kale, which has seen a 45 percent jump in menu mentions. Sim says that kind of gain is uncommon.
Mesclun, also known as spring mix, similarly made a strong gain; it contains a variety of greens. Others making gains were butterhead lettuce, arugula, red and green cabbage, and varieties with additional descriptors, such as baby spinach and baby arugula.
“There’s always room for innovation in salads, and these growing trends are evidence that restaurants are trying to innovate,” Sim says.
At Salata, the Houston-based chain that dubs itself the “next-generation salad bar,” the greens are “the most important part” of a salad, says David Laborde, director of product development. “They may not be as much fun as dried cranberries or blue cheese, but we take a lot of pride and time making sure our guests start off with the best,” he says.
Salata restaurants feature five bases: romaine hearts, baby leaf spinach, spring mix, kale, and a proprietary mix, which includes romaine, spring mix, and red and green cabbage.
Romaine is “a juggernaut,” Laborde says, and other restaurant companies report the same. That’s largely because of the lettuce’s sweet taste, character, color, and ability to stand up both in flavor and on the plate to many toppings, proteins, and creamy dressings.
“If you make a salad with a lot of bold flavors, you may want to use romaine hearts, which are light and crunchy, with a texture to balance other ingredients,” says Christina Wong, spokeswoman for Tender Greens, a fast casual based in Culver City, California.
Romaine hearts are used in several Tender Greens salads, including the Chipotle Barbecue Chicken, which features avocados, queso fresco, tortilla strips, green onions, and a cilantro-lime dressing.
At Saladworks, which has more than 100 units, a 50/50 mix of romaine and iceberg lettuce chopped daily is the base for many salads, such as the Buffalo Bleu, with chicken, grape tomatoes, crumbled blue cheese, and spicy sauce.