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.
“I know iceberg is considered passé, but it has a nice body, and for old-school folks, it’s relatable,” says Paul Steck, president and chief operating officer of the Conshohocken, Pennsylvania–based company.
Romaine by itself or with other greens is the usual choice for the Caesar salad, which traditionally includes ingredients like Parmesan cheese, egg, and croutons. Sweetgreen and Corner Bakery both have a Caesar salad that combines romaine with kale.
At Corner Bakery, the Kale Caesar salad is two parts romaine to one part kale. “Kale isn’t the predominant green, but it is one of the flavors,” Scicchitano says.
Kale, a recent addition at many limited-service restaurants, often has a strong taste but is high in vitamins and minerals. Its rise in popularity has surprised many chefs and operators.
“Kale blows my mind,” says the CIA’s Roe, noting that the green’s growth has been fueled by health-conscious Millennials. “If you would have put that in front of me when I was 10, I would have thought I was on ‘Candid Camera.’”
Corner Bakery uses a trio of kale bases: Russian red, green, and a blend. In the Toasted Sesame Kale salad, which also has toasted sesame seeds and shredded carrots, the ginger soy dressing is warmed to lightly wilt the greens. It removes the bitter flavor and gives it a light sweetness, Scicchitano says.
Sweetgreen has several regular and seasonal salads that mix kale with hot quinoa or wild rice as a base. “Kale stands up to the warm grains,” Stebner says. “You would not put mesclun or baby greens on top of a warm bowl.”
Mesclun is typically paired with light toppings and vinaigrette dressings. The type of small, young leafy vegetables in spring mixes varies depending on the restaurant company and can range from a half-dozen to more than 10 greens.
Laborde says Salata’s mesclun mix has about eight varieties, including some baby spinach and red oakleaf. “Ours has pretty tight specifications,” he says. “It’s a sweet mix because sweet is more consumer friendly.” Other restaurants have a tarter mix with endive or radicchio.
Saladworks’ spring mix includes produce that is readily available and usually includes baby spinach, red oakleaf, baby curly endive, and arugula, which adds a peppery flavor. “They are all harvested very young,” Steck says.
Butter lettuce—also known as bibb—at Tender Greens is more delicate and tender than romaine, but still holds up well, Wong says. It is included in salads such as the Backyard Steak with radishes, roasted beets, and horseradish vinaigrette, and the Southern Fried Chicken, which has freckled romaine, cucumber, radishes, and dill dressing.
Spinach is another favorite, though some varieties can be bitter. Sweeter baby spinach tends to work well with strong flavors, such as Corner Bakery’s Spinach Sweet Crisp salad with strawberries, oranges, grapes, cranberries, green onions, goat cheese, and raisin pecan sweet crisps, or Sweetgreen’s Spicy Sabzi, which includes raw beets, carrots, sprouts, roasted tofu, sriracha, and a carrot-chile vinaigrette.
A number of operators are on the lookout for new varieties of greens, either to add to the regular menu or as seasonal offerings.
“We are always bringing in new lettuces,” Stebner says. “We have used bok choy, Swiss chard, and now broccoli leaf. From an availability standpoint, something like broccoli leaf would be difficult to use on anything but a seasonal menu.” That’s particularly the case when companies like Sweetgreen and Tender Greens are using greens that are often locally sourced.
Saladworks is “playing with some new-wave greens,” Steck says, including arugula and baby kale. In October, the chain will have a cruciferous vegetable salad, including roasted cauliflower and Brussels sprouts.
Tender Greens is using tatsoi (spinach mustard), mizuna (California peppergrass), and golden pea sprouts in its Chinese Chicken Salad. “The pea shoots are sweet all by themselves and add a nice flavor to the salad,” Wong says.
Increasingly, operators are using grains to supplement their salad bases. In addition to the quinoa and wild rice at Sweetgreen, Corner Bakery’s Southwest salad adds quinoa and black beans to romaine and a slaw mix as the base, topped with ingredients like pickled jalapeños and a corn-and-tomato salsa, along with an avocado ranch dressing.
Several salads at Saladworks incorporate radiatorre pasta with greens as the base. The company also offered a seasonal Spring Noodle salad this year with a base of its regular salad mix combined with “noodles marinated with soy sauce, sweet chile garlic paste, and sesame oil,” Steck says.
While most folks think about the salad greens being at the base of a dish, pizza chain Posh Tomato has come up with some pies with the greens on top.
“It really resonates with the healthy crowd,” says Morris Sarway, cofounder of the four-unit, Brooklyn, New York–based chain.
Some salad pizzas are based on popular salads, like the Greek, Gorgonzola, and Caesar options. All use romaine, which is placed on the thin-crust pizzas after they are baked.
“Early on, we had our culinary artists create a Greek salad pizza for us, and when we saw the numbers, we were amazed,” Sarway says. “We would run out of romaine. So we thought, ‘Let’s see if we can expand on it.’”
Posh Tomato added a pizza topped with arugula, which also features the company’s house sauce, cheese, and roasted garlic, and another with baby spinach, sliced tomatoes, a cheese blend, and Feta cheese crumbles.