Chopped salads, such as this heirloom tomato and basil chopped salad with red onions, cheese cubes and Genovese basil, were among the items that experienced the most growth in the salad segment this past year.

As diners’ demands for fresher, healthier, more nutritious menu options increase, entrée salads have begun to dominate the salad options on many menus. Technomic’s MenuMonitor database shows that, while appetizer salad offerings are down, the number of entrée salads has gone up in the last year. What is more, these entrée salads show much more diversity in flavor combinations, new ethnic and regional twists, and new ways to present traditional entrées in salad form.

According to Technomic, appetizer salad menu listings are down 19.4%, while the average price is up 5.8% (from $6.19 to $6.55). Entrée salads were up 9.6% in the average price, from $8.09 to $8.87, yet have shown a dramatic increase in menu listings--up 10.8%.

Reinventing the Classics

Traditional salad recipes, including chopped salads, Caesar salads and Cobb salads, saw the most growth in the entrée salad segment. Chopped salads grew 1.1%, Caesar salads grew 1.9%, and Cobb salads grew 3.8%. But, while these classic salads are very familiar to consumers, new, unique flavor combinations are making an impact on menus. Many of these traditional salads got an ethnic or regional twist--such as a Southwestern or barbecue flavor--to attract consumers’ desire for “something more” in a salad being consumed as their main course. More protein options were also added to these traditional salads, making them more filling, appealing options as entrées and not just as starters for the meal:
* Chopped Salad--with fresh chopped field greens tossed with chipotle ranch dressing, Southwestern barbecue grilled chicken, black bean and corn salsa, diced avocadoes, tomatoes, Cheddar cheese and barbecue tortilla strips, Champps.
* Original BBQ Chopped Salad--fresh white corn, carrots, black beans, tortilla strips, Monterey Jack cheese, scallions, tomatoes and cilantro tossed with ranch dressing or barbecue sauce (with chicken breast or portobello mushroom), Wood Ranch Barbecue & Grill.
* Southwest Chicken Caesar Salad--seasoned chicken, corn, black beans and grape tomatoes on a bed of romaine lettuce with Parmesan cheese, garlic croutons and Caesar dressing, Wendy’s (reintroduced as a limited-time offer in 2008; last appeared on menu in 2003).
* Chipotle Caesar Salad--with mixed greens, sliced chicken breast, avocado, jalapeño Jack cheese, plum tomatoes, croutons and sun-dried tomatoes with a creamy Caesar dressing, Roly Poly.

Although Southwestern flavors are strong favorites on menus, this effort to diversify traditional salad recipes does extend to ethnic flavor combinations, such as Italian-inspired salads:
* Italian Chopped Salad--Genoa salami, turkey and provolone cheese atop traditional ingredients, Red Robin Gourmet Burgers.
* Sicilian Chicken Chop Salad--grilled chicken breast served on fresh romaine, tossed in-house Italian vinaigrette with mozzarella, Provolone, hickory ham, pepperoni, tomatoes, green onions, red onions, pepperoncinis and freshly shredded Parmesan cheese, Old Chicago Restaurants.

The Primacy of Protein

In a recent consumer poll, diners told Technomic they would be willing to pay more for value-added salads that offer more protein, a bigger portion, a side of bread, premium cheese or more vegetables. This consumer emphasis on proteins in salads is new, and seems to reflect the general shift in attitude toward seeing salads as more than a starter course.

Chicken is still the most prevalent protein topping entrée salads, with Technomic’s MenuMonitor database showing the number of chicken salads up 2.4% on menus of the Top 500 chains. But many restaurants are extending their poultry offerings on the salad menu beyond the traditional grilled chicken. Examples include:
* Crispy Chicken Salad, Maggiano’s Little Italy.
* Parmesan Crusted Chicken Caesar, Shaw’s Crab House.
* Turkey Chop Chop Salad--tender slices of smoked turkey in a zesty chipotle ranch dressing with crisp mixed greens, tomatoes, red onions, spicy roasted corn and peppers, freshly grated Cheddar cheese and bacon bits, Texas Steakhouse & Saloon.
* Mandarin Duck Salad--warm roasted duck breast, napa cabbage, romaine, mango, red peppers, scallions and crispy egg noodles tossed in an orange hoisin vinaigrette and topped with crispy cellophane noodles, Stir Crazy.

Fish and seafood salads, which were added to many menus last year, are down in incidence this year--perhaps related to rising prices of their key ingredient. Salmon salads were down 2%, with an average price increase of about 4%; seafood salads were down 3.6%, with their average price up 8.7%.

There were, however, a number of new offerings in seafood salads, including:
* Ahi Caesar Salad--with sliced ahi tuna, Kahunaville Island Restaurant & Party Bar.
* Crab Cake and Caesar Salad Platter--with marinated anchovy dressing or mustard mayonnaise dressing, Shaw’s Crab House.
* Shrimp & Scallops Gourmet Green Salad--with spicy Cajun shrimp and scallops, red bell peppers and Roma tomatoes, tossed in a white balsamic vinaigrette and topped with Parmesan cheese, Coco’s Restaurant & Bakery.

The Marriage of Sweet and Savory

Though the number of new Asian salads is down significantly from last year (-8.6%), the Asian-influenced idea of combining protein with fruit and mixing savory with sweet flavors is a popular way to create new salads that are low in calories, yet high in flavor. This sweet-and-savory flavor combination also extends into dressings. Such items appeared both on regular menus and as seasonal or summer items:
* Turkey Apple Club Summertime Salad--featuring apples, spring leaf lettuce, Cheddar cheese, turkey, bacon, red onions and balsamic vinaigrette, Bruegger’s Bagel Bakery.
* Lobster, Avocado and Mango Salad--part of summertime Lobster Month promotion, Smith & Wollensky.
* Grilled Chicken Mango Salad--limited-time offer; grilled adobo chicken, mango salsa and shredded romaine lettuce in a tortilla bowl, topped with cilantro-lime vinaigrette and choice of cheese or sour cream, Qdoba Mexican Grill.
* Strawberry Fields Salad with Chicken--return of a former LTO as part of the “Right Portion, Right Price” menu; sautéed chicken, Parmesan cheese and glazed pecans over mixed greens, tossed in balsamic vinaigrette and topped with balsamic-marinated strawberries and Parmesan cheese, T.G.I. Friday’s.
* Crab Apple Salad--with orange-sesame vinaigrette, Not Your Average Joe’s.
* Tropical Chicken Salad--with citrus-tequila marinated grilled chicken, a pineapple-mango relish and a citrus-tequila dressing over traditional Southwestern salad ingredients, Acapulco Mexican Restaurant.

Reinventing Entrées as Salads

Another big trend in the effort to offer more entrée salads has been the repackaging of regular entrée ingredients into a salad form. Bob Evans recently announced it would be offering its “Bob-B-Q” in the form of different dinner items, including a Wildfire chicken salad with its famous Wildfire barbecue sauce. Swich Pressed Sandwich in New York City offers the majority of its sandwiches “deconstructed,” served as enormous salads without bread. Potbelly Sandwich Works is offering a deli-sandwich-turned-salad with its Wreck Salad, a low-carb option for protein lovers with salami, roast beef, turkey, ham, Swiss cheese, blue cheese, hard-boiled egg, cucumbers and tomatoes on top of romaine lettuce. Mimi’s Café launched aCarne AsadaEntrée Salad--zesty spice-rubbed steak, diced tomatoes, corn, feta cheese, grilled peppers and red onions tossed in a creamy cilantro dressing, served over iceberg lettuce and topped with crispy tortilla strips and fresh avocado. For its version of the classic BLT sandwich, California Pizza Kitchen has created a part-pizza, part-salad dish: the BLT Pizza features bacon and mozzarella with rounds of thinly sliced Roma tomatoes and lots of chopped romaine lettuce dressed in mayonnaise.

The Rise of the Salad Specialists

Consumers say they want healthy food, but 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. As American consumers’ demand for fresh, healthy, convenient salads grows, a relatively new category of salad specialty restaurants is thriving. A number of chains have made a push for national expansion, including Doc Green’s Salads & Grill, MAD Greens Inspired Eats, Salad Creations, Saladworks, Salad Spinners, Tender Greens and Tossed. These build-your-own-salad concepts allow customers to control ingredients themselves, while making salads seem enticing with preparations and descriptions that evoke good health, such as “grilled,” “fresh” and “low-fat” components.

The largest of these new fast-casual salad chains is Saladworks, a Pennsylvania-based concept providing gourmet, custom-made salads, hot pasta entrées and grilled sandwiches. All but one of the almost 90 U.S. Saladworks locations are franchised. Units feature large hanging menus that look like old-fashioned chalkboards behind the counters, along with large display windows featuring different salad varieties. The décor creates a comfortable and contemporary look using natural tones and colors, such as oranges, greens and browns. Open for lunch and dinner, Saladworks offers catering services in addition to counter service. Saladworks offers fresh entrée salads for lunch and dinner, served with a choice of dressing and freshly baked bread. The menu emphasizes made-to-order signature salads, including the Bently--a blend of ham, turkey, lettuce, eggs and tomatoes. Although the name reflects a focus on salads, the salad selection comprises only half of Saladworks’ menu; the rest is filled with a selection of signature wraps, paninis and soups.

Competition is fierce, and not just from salad concepts; national chains, including quick-service leaders McDonald’s and Wendy’s, are promoting salads, too. McDonald’s Premium Salads include Caesar, Bacon Ranch, the Asian Chicken Salad and the Southwest Salad--all of which are available with crispy or grilled chicken. Newman’s Own organic salad dressings add to the “health halo” of the salads. Wendy’s Garden Sensations salad menu includes Southwest Taco Salad, Mandarin Chicken Salad, Chicken Caesar Salad and Chicken BLT Salad; the chain recently switched over to warm chicken options (Grilled, Homestyle or Spicy) instead of the cold, diced chicken that was used previously. Who would have thought even a decade ago that salads would become a key menu focus for chains that built their reputations on their millions of fast-food hamburgers?

These and other salad operators will remain competitive, 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.

For more information about salads and dressings and exclusive industry data, contact Patrick Noone at Technomic at 312-506-3852.