In more ways than one, these are truly “salad days” for the nation's restaurant industry. First off, menus are bulging with salads. The National Restaurant Association (NRA, Washington) says entrée salads are the fastest growing item on restaurant menus. Secondly, salad variety is exploding with an almost reckless abandon, calling to mind the source of the now-quaint term “salad days.”

Plucked from one of Shakespeare's 15th-century plays, the phrase came to reference the “greenness” of youth, a time of dalliance and frivolity when caution is thrown to the wind. And “salad” in Shakespeare's time broadly referenced far more than lettuce and dressing; it referred to a complex mix of chopped, mixed and seasoned vegetables.

No doubt, restaurateurs today are having great fun with salads as they eagerly tear down the barriers that have narrowly defined the salad as a rather pedestrian mix of lettuce, tomatoes, cucumber, croutons and dressing. Evidence does indeed point to restaurants circling back to what may have been the original concept of the salad as a grab bag of healthful and tasty goodies, rather than a bland, obligatory pre-meal diversion.

Equally noteworthy, the foodservice world is busily reworking the concept of salad dressings. Still a critical component of the salad despite a growing emphasis on other base additions, dressings are breaking out of the creamy French, Thousand Island and Bleu Cheese mold and into lighter, more flavorful and nuanced formulations.

“There's a move underway to mix the salad concept up,” says Bob Goldin, executive vice president of Technomic Inc. (Chicago), a food industry market research firm. “We're seeing the use of more expensive, higher-quality variety lettuces and ingredients and more flavor combos. Salads are proving to be a very versatile product that presents restaurateurs with a lot of options. You can pretty much add anything you want to a salad.”

New Dressing Concepts

As for dressings, Goldin says there is a distinct move toward experimentation. “Dressings are lighter, more ethnic-oriented and more oil-based rather than creamy-based. Vinaigrettes of all types are where the growth is.”

Whether due to that expanded variety, the healthy-eating connection that ebbs and flows, or the consumer's constant craving for new taste thrills, salad demand and supply at the foodservice level is growing relentlessly.

According to the NRA's 2005 “Restaurant Industry Forecast” issued earlier this year, entrée salads--as opposed to the more traditional side salad--are in the midst of showing the strongest growth of all menu categories at both full-service and quick-service restaurants (QSRs).

Fifty-two percent of casual dining restaurants report more orders for such salads compared to two years ago, while 45% of family dining operations and 39% of fine dining operations report the same.

But QSR demand is off the charts, no surprise given the high-profile moves of operators like McDonald's (Oak Brook, Ill.) and Wendy's (Dublin, Ohio) to aggressively ramp up salad offerings in the face of a relentless “food police” assault on fast food. Some 78% of QSR operators polled said they are receiving more such orders, though they are still a fraction of the traditional burgers-and-fries business.

Various other research has put a number on the overall growth of entrée salads; some studies suggest the average menu may have gained 15% more such salad additions between 2001 and 2003.

While there seems to be a whirlwind of activity surrounding salads, suggesting an unfocused, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink attitude toward salad development, there are identifiable patterns governing innovation in the category.

Definitive Trends

According to Mintel Group's (Chicago) just-released Menu Insights installment--“Salads: Observations in Trends, Flavors, Ingredients and Concepts”--several definitive trends are framing salad and salad dressing development in the foodservice industry.

One of the overarching ones is a steady move toward more variety in the base greens component of salads. While traditional house/garden/chef salads that lean heavily toward standard iceberg lettuce and Caesar salads that use romaine remain hugely popular, innovators are using more exotic lettuces and, to an even greater degree, spinach.

“Spinach is the new iceberg,” says Amanda Archibald, a restaurant menu analyst with Mintel. “It's become more mainstream in the diet, and it's seen as an acceptable baseline taste for Americans, making it a comfortable base to build a salad on.”

In addition to being far more nutrient-dense that most lettuces, spinach may lend itself better to pairings with other items, especially the increasingly popular vinaigrette dressings that are enticing consumers.

Among the new spinach-based salad offerings cited in the study were pear and balsamic spinach; blackberry spinach; ham, brie cheese, green apples, red onions; and green apples, feta cheese and walnuts.

Menus at more upscale outlets sported offerings like warm wild mushroom spinach salad with chick peas, olives and preserved lemon; insalata di spinaci with applewood-smoked bacon, cipolline, onion, organic aged ricotta and champagne vinegar; and warm baby spinach salad with sweetbreads, medjool dates, grilled onions and orange vinaigrette.

The study also made specific mention of the increasing incidence of avocados showing up in more new salads. Although far from staking a claim as a central ingredient, largely because of price, the avocado may slowly be moving away from being an expensive adornment. One fast casual chain was featuring a salad consisting primarily of avocados, papayas and mangoes.

Along the same lines, the Mintel study also found more salads containing fruits, such as berries, cherries, apples and bananas. Nuts, too--from cashews and almonds to walnuts and pinenuts--were adorning more new salad introductions in the first half of 2005, says Mintel.

“In casual and QSR restaurants, we're seeing more pizzazz with fruits and nuts in salads,” Archibald says. “Operators are using them mainly for flavor and texture, rather than playing off the health value of things present in them like antioxidants. There's an opportunity for them to make that kind of health claim.” In some of the more upscale venues, nuts may even be emerging as the next crouton, she says.

Part of the fuel for the growth of traditional green salads in recent years has been the steady inclusion of a protein component such as chicken or beef. Such additions have helped turn salads into more of a meal proposition by broadening them nutritionally and catering to what still at its core is a nation of meat-lovers.

Chicken, Mintel found, is still the predominant protein inclusion in salads, although there is a move toward greater differentiation. Moving beyond strips of plain chicken, innovative restaurants are adding flavor nuances such as fried, barbecue and Southwestern, as well as more exotic citrus, sesame, soy, soy-ginger and chili.

Meanwhile, seafood salads appear to be on the upswing. While tuna remains the most popular seafood to use in salads at midscale, casual and QSR outlets, shrimp and crab are drawing more attention, especially in middle-tier units. Lobster, predictably, is a common salad accompaniment in upscale establishments.

Delicious Dressings

But the real revolution may be taking place in the dressing's component. With more consumers waking up to the fact that traditional fat-laden creamy dressings can negate some of the healthful attributes of salads, the push is on by operators to get creative with dressings in new ways.

Mintel found that vinaigrette-style dressings are particularly enticing to operators because they easily impart the sweet and spicy profiles consumers apparently like. The most popular flavor nuances in vinaigrettes are garlic, honey, Parmesan cheese, lemon and raspberry. Some of the more unusual ones which turned up in the Mintel survey were tarragon mustard, andouille sausage, mandarin orange and endive/bacon.

“Honey is becoming the big new flavor carrier for vinaigrette dressings, a result of honey becoming more mainstream as an ingredient,” Archibald says. “It fits in well with a lot of different flavor profiles, including Asian, Southwest and Mexican.”

While the push is clearly on to create salads that sing with variety and surprise, restaurants are still finding they have to aggressively market and position the category to appeal to the typical salad consumer. Consequently, Mintel found, specific health claims are becoming part of the descriptive language on menus.

The claim that has seen the most growth on menus is organic. According to Mintel, there was a 25% increase in the use of the word “organic” as a salad descriptor on menus between the second quarter of 2004 and the second quarter of 2005. “Healthy” and “vegetarian” also are common descriptors, as is “low-carb,” a claim that is well-justified given the generally higher proportion of protein components in salads.

“As they're built less traditionally, there is a growing opportunity for operators to possibly make more specific health claims with salads,” Archibald says.

Although salad appeal is still strongly skewed to females, Goldin says the creation of more salads using healthy ingredients will create opportunities to aggressively position salads as healthful for even males. However salads are marketed, it is clear that the future growth of salads and the dressings they are paired with may only be limited by the imagination of menu developers and the willingness of consumers to test the boundaries of their ideas of what constitutes a salad.

Indeed, the industry may someday look back on this era as its “salad days,” the time when it was at its peak in innovation. As it looks now, that may be years off.

The Reign of Caesar

Rumor has it that the Caesar salad was created by Chef Caesar Cardini in Tijuana, Mexico, in 1924. Since its creation, the Caesar salad has outlasted other salad trends by appearing on 59% of national menus, tracked by Mintel's Menu Insights. However, many newer modifications to the Caesar salad can be found. The most popular variation to the Caesar salad is the addition of protein. Top proteins accompanying the Caesar salad are chicken, steak, shrimp, anchovy, tuna (ahi included), salmon, oyster, turkey and mahi mahi.

Caesar dressing also has been spiced up with the flavors of garlic, anchovy, Parmesan cheese, cilantro, Southwestern, barbecue (BBQ), and lemon-thyme. Asian, BBQ and Southwestern menu trends also have altered the look and taste of the Caesar salad. Noodles and Company (Boulder, Colo.) offers the “Spicy Thai Caesar Salad” with fiery red chili dressing tossed with romaine and field greens, topped with crispy wonton strips. Ninety-Nine Restaurant and Pub (Woburn, Mass.) combines Southwestern and BBQ flavors with the “BBQ Caesar Steak Salad.” The salad features marinated sliced sirloin steak atop crisp romaine lettuce tossed with BBQ Caesar dressing, fresh tomatoes and topped with habanero pepper jack and cheddar cheese. Chef Caesar Cardini's salad is still a classic, but endless variations demonstrate that “anything goes” today on a Caesar salad.

Maria Caranfa, Mintel's Menu Insights

Update on Healthy

  • New dietary guidelines: emphasis on whole-grains, produce, sugar and salt

  • Low-carb waning, though still evident on menus

  • Trans fats

  • Nutritional information

  • Allergies

  • Portion size

  • Preparation shifts (grilling/broiling vs. frying)

Source: Technomic Inc.