In the late 1990s, the owners of a Chicago restaurant called Taza noticed that, although it was a rotisserie-chicken concept, the chicken was being outsold. In fact, its salads were the bestselling menu item. So in February of 2000, the owners opened a spin-off chain to focus on entrée salads, and Salad Spinners was born.
“I think probably the one concept that’s really responsible for the modern salad entrée would have to be the Cheesecake Factory,” says Rich Levy, president and CEO of Salad Spinners. “They made it OK for someone to pay $12 for a salad back in the early- to mid-1990s.”
Today, Salad Spinners is still going strong, and Levy estimates that about 50 percent of its customers order an entrée salad topped with poultry—even though none of them come with it automatically.
“Poultry is to salads what jelly is to the peanut butter sandwich,” he says. “It’s an important component of any salad concept, whether grilled, roasted, pulled, or smoked. You can do so much with chicken. It’s like your utility player on a sports team.”
As consumers continue to place an emphasis on convenience and nutrition, now more than ever is the time to innovate on the entrée salad front. Luckily, poultry creates ample opportunities to do so.
Poultry has been and remains the No. 1 protein ingredient in salads, followed by meat and seafood, according to global consumer, product, and market research firm Mintel.
“Poultry’s always going to be popular, and in addition, chicken is the most popular poultry ingredient,” says Maria Caranfa, director of Mintel Menu Insights. “Adding chicken to a salad really makes it more of an entrée salad and more of a meal rather than a side salad or something extra.”
Trends in salads have explored barbecue-flavored chicken, smoked chicken, and buffalo chicken, but new flavors are creeping into the mix, as well.
John Scardapane, CEO of Saladworks, a Pennsylvania-based chain with more than 100 locations, says four of its most popular salads come with chicken—the Chicken Caesar, Fire Roasted Cabo Jack, Buffalo Blue, and Mandarin Chicken.
“Chicken pairs well with a lot of different fruits, and fruits are becoming more popular in salads,” Caranfa says.
Operators can add different melons and berries to a salad featuring chicken, or they can opt to give the chicken a fruit flavor. Citrus is especially popular, Caranfa says—lemon, lime, and orange glazes have all popped up on menus.
She points to Wendy’s as an industry giant that offers a wide variety of salads; the chain even offers a Mandarin Chicken Salad with Grilled Chicken Breast.
Salad Spinners, too, incorporated a fruit-inspired salad onto its menu when it made the switch from plain grilled chicken to citrus grilled chicken recently. Now it’s the only chicken option that the restaurant serves its customers, and CEO Levy says the brand’s customers have appreciated the change.
“They feel it’s a little bit fancier than a regular chicken on a grill,” he says.
But fruit isn’t the only option for unusual seasonings.
“Experiment with flavors of the poultry,” Caranfa says. “Find different flavors that go well with the base salad. If it’s a southwestern salad, try spicy chicken. If it’s a Caesar-y salad, maybe try a parmesan chicken. Flavor there can drive innovation.”
Levy suggests looking outside your own restaurant and to larger trends in the industry for ideas.
“Having the right amount of variety and having really the most popular flavors and the most up-and-coming flavors is going to be important,” Caranfa says.