Salads with seafood and an Asian flair continue to be popular. This Thai spicy mango shrimp creation contains many of the ingredients consumers prefer. PHOTO COURTESY OF

Salads have been hot this year, as consumers’ growing desire for foods with a “fresh” and “healthy” profile stimulates operators to find creative ways to fill those needs. High on the list of favorites are: seafood salads, Asian-influenced salads, Southwestern salads and Mediterranean and Greek salads.

Technomic’s research shows today’s consumers want salads they cannot easily make themselves at home, so offering a salad with a wide variety of ingredients, or a “create your own” salad, can be an opportunity to provide something customers perceive as unique and special. Foodservice suppliers can help in this effort by providing operators with salad recipes and products that draw on consumers’ increasing interest in freshness, locally sourced ingredients and interesting taste profiles.

Consumers who say they are trying to “eat healthy” have a greater tendency to purchase salads. Perhaps this is because purchasing a salad lets them eat something viewed as “good for them,” or because it guarantees a serving of vegetables.

Some 43% of consumers indicate they are likely to purchase a salad if it is unique or new to them and sounds appealing, according to Technomic’s “Salad Category Report.” For this consumer subset, the description of the new item on the menu may have a good deal to do with the success of new salad menu items.

Operators are continually adding new salads to the menu and often will highlight these new additions. For example, among recent new menu items are a Mesquite Chicken Salad from Chili’s and Bennigan’s Fajita Salad.

Full Service Salads

Among full-service restaurants (FSRs), the most striking variation from Top 250 chains is the prominence of seafood salads on menus. Technomic’s MenuMonitor shows that, of 843 entrée salads offered by emerging chains and independents in the FSR segment, 157 are seafood salads. They are menued at a high average price—$16.71—with a $6.99-$89 price range. Salmon salad went for a relatively high price, with a range of $7.99–$27.95. While interest in seafood on the part of American consumers is at an all-time high, it may be that the price premium commanded by these salads could, to some extent, limit their growth potential in the large chains.

However, seafood entrée salads also are quite popular in both independent, limited-service restaurants (LSRs) and those operated by emerging chains—ranking fourth in popularity with 21 items offered at prices averaging $7.49. There were also four salmon salads, priced relatively high by LSR standards at $5.19 to $25.95. In addition to the possibility of price resistance in the mass market, achieving consistent product supply might also limit the potential of some seafood salads for the Top 250.

Ethnic, Emerging and Niche Trends

Pasta and noodles were incorporated into salads at the Top 250 FSRs (5.7% of salads) and LSRs (5.3%) but not in the independent restaurants and emerging chains. As consumer interest in fresh produce and low-carb choices accelerates, interest in pasta salad is declining.

Among the most striking ethnic trends, Mediterranean-influenced (particularly Greek) salads are gaining the spotlight, while Southwestern and Asian flavors continue to be long-time favorites. For example, Carrows offers a Southwest Salad with Shrimp that features chicken or shrimp seasoned with a zesty chile spice that is served over crisp romaine lettuce, cheddar cheese, olives, tomatoes and avocado accompanied by roasted chipotle dressing and tortilla strips. Durango Steak House features a Chipotle Sea Bass Salad that consists of mixed lettuce, cucumbers, tortilla strips, pico de gallo and Jack cheddar cheese with a flaky sea bass filet that is lime and chipotle seasoned and oak-grilled. Hardee’s has a Southwest Chicken Salad which is a crisp, bowl-shaped tortilla shell filled with shredded lettuce, crispy chicken breast strips, red onions, white onions, tomatoes, shredded cheddar cheese and Santa Fe dressing.

The rise of Southwestern salads coincided with the decline of Cajun blackened meats, which completely disappeared from Top 250 salad menus in the past year. Buffalo seasoning also became less prominent. This may indicate that consumers with a taste for spice and heat may be substituting such items with more Mexican/Southwestern-oriented flavors.

Major non-Asian chains also are fine-tuning their menus with the addition of pan-Asian flavors such as sesame, ginger, soy or wasabi, a la 2006’s resounding success of McDonald’s Asian Chicken Salad or Wendy’s Mandarin Chicken Salad in its “Garden Sensations” lineup.

Independents and emerging chains also are pushing the envelope farther, experimenting with new ingredients and flavor combinations:
  • Bakers Square serves a Stir-fry Salad—Mixed greens topped with grilled chicken and stir-fry vegetables sautéed in teriyaki sauce with crunchy noodles, served with sesame Asian dressing.
  • Così menus a Bombay Chicken Salad—Tandoori chicken, roasted red peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers and red onions tossed with mixed greens with peppercorn ranch dressing.
  • Bern’s Steak House has a Chilled Indonesian Chicken Curry Salad—Mild curried blend of chicken, celery and roasted pecans.

    Greek and other Mediterranean cuisines continue to be hot, and there are numerous other traditional Mediterranean salads still to explore, such as Tuna Nicoise (from the French Riviera). Other innovative offerings include:
  • Dave & Buster’s offers a Greek Tavern Salad with Grilled Chicken or Shrimp—Crisp lettuce, imported feta cheese, Kalamata olives, cucumber, tomato, radishes, red onion and banana peppers tossed with a zesty Mediterranean dressing with a lemon and herb-grilled chicken breast or garlic and lemon-grilled shrimp.
  • Schlotzsky’s Deli serves a Greek Salad—Iceberg and romaine lettuce, feta cheese, red cabbage, carrots, red onion, black olives and tomato.
  • Noodles & Company has The Med Salad—Seasonal greens, curly cavatappi pasta tossed with creamy tzatziki dressing, Roma tomatoes, crisp cucumber, red onion, Kalamata olives and crumbled feta.
  • la Madeleine introduced a Nicoise Salad—Chunk white tuna with a mix of fresh lettuce, green beans, Roma tomatoes, rosemary roasted potatoes, eggs, Kalamata olives and signature Caesar salad dressing.

    Salad-centric Concepts

    In the Denver area, MAD Green’s Inspired Eats has found success with a menu of chef-designed and customized salads. At Florida-based Salad Creations, the menu includes fresh fruit smoothies, wraps and soups in addition to salads. Likewise, Tender Greens stretches beyond salad with an all-natural menu that offers mesquite-grilled steak, chicken and seafood entrées. Finally, Tossed offers the widest variety of any salad chain with more than 70 ingredients for unique, custom-made salads, as well as crêpes, sandwiches and soups.

    While salads are the main attraction for these concepts, they work to grow the customer base by offering something for just about everyone. In addition, salads are a cost-effective way to introduce trendy, ethnic flavor profiles. Something as simple as a cucumber-wasabi dressing or Asian peanut dressing capitalizes on the growing appeal of Asian flavors—one of the most important taste trends of the past year.

    While consumers say they want “healthy” food, the last thing anyone wants is bland “diet food.” Consumers are attracted to fare with a healthy positioning, but only if it has exciting flavors and does not feel restrictive. Build-your-own salad chains fit the bill by allowing customers the ability to control the ingredients themselves, while making salads seem enticing, with preparations and descriptions that evoke good health such as “grilled,” “fresh” and “low-fat.”

    The salad category is fiercely competitive, and competition comes from many segments. For example, national quick-service chains such as McDonald’s and Wendy’s promote salads. McDonald’s recently estimated that it has sold 600 million premium salads since 2003—more than all salad concepts combined. The major chains and other emerging salad operators will continue to compete, particularly in the quick-casual realm, by focusing on what makes a salad appealing in the first place: high-quality ingredients, interesting flavors, fresh, globally-inspired dressings and a commitment to speed and convenience for the customer.

    By Technomic Information Services Editorial Staff. For more information about foodservice salad trends and exclusive industry data, contact Patrick Noone at Technomic at 312-506-3852.