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Menu Development | By Marc Halperin

New Shades of Green
Taking quick-serve salads to the next level.
Salads are growing in popularity as menu items.

As many quick-serve marketing gurus know too well, there is often a sizable difference between the foods consumers say they want to eat and the foods they actually choose to order when they arrive at the counter or drive-thru window.

In surveys, focus groups, interviews, and intercepts, many guests will report that health considerations play a major role in determining their menu selections. But at the moment of truth, when they survey the menuboard and spy that eight-piece fried chicken combo, triple cheeseburger or Mega-Meat Mavens’ pizza, taste often trumps nutrition.

Still, in recent years, the sheer volume of diet, health, and nutrition information on constant parade in the mass media seems to have permeated the public consciousness in ways that are hard to ignore. A recent National Restaurant Association survey reported, for instance, that 76 percent of consumers say they are trying to eat more healthy when they visit restaurants than they did just two years ago.

If there is an inexorable march toward health-conscious dining here in 2009, it might behoove chains to stop thinking of salads as mere alternatives to standard menu staples, and elevate the entire category to the equal of sandwiches, tacos, pizzas, chicken dinners, and other traditional entrée fare. Doing so, of course, will require most chains to invest significantly in expanding the number and variety of salads available to guests while achieving true differentiation for their selections through a combination of high-quality ingredients and unusual ingredient combinations.

To date, many of the most novel quick-serve salads have been characterized by the inclusion of creative dressings, cheeses, nuts, fresh and dried fruits, and noodles or other accents. Chick-fil-A’s char-grilled chicken and fruit salad, for instance, features carrots, strawberries, red grapes, apples, and granola. McDonald’s Southwest salad is impressively decked out with cilantro-lime glazed chicken, poblano peppers, tomatoes, black beans, roasted corn, chili-lime tortilla strips, and shredded cheese. And the Mediterranean Tuna Salad at Togo’s places albacore tuna alongside roasted red peppers, black olive and feta cheese salsa, tomatoes, cucumbers, olive oil, and capers.

But for all the ingredient ingenuity evinced in the examples noted above and in signature salads available at other chains, the one area that has remained essentially untouched is the base of the salad itself—the greens. In virtually every case, with the exception of the occasional spinach entry, green romaine and iceberg lettuces or a simple spring mix remain the orders of the day. Major quick-serve chains have yet to explore the potential inherent in other, more unusual, leafy greens. And to me this represents a significant missed opportunity for salad differentiation. While most consumers aren’t yet pining for salads that include the likes of unusual endives, kale, Swiss chard, bok choy, mustard greens, or turnip greens, this might have more to do with a lack of exposure than anything else. The fact is, greens aren’t just the foundation of a salad; they’re critical contributors to its overall texture, flavor, and freshness quotient.

They can also make an enormous difference in its nutritional value, rich as they are in vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients. From folate, a vitamin that has been linked to improved cognitive function in older adults, to vitamins C and E, to iron, calcium, potassium, and beta carotene, the number and variety of nutrients that spring from this rich branch of the vegetable kingdom make for exceptionally healthful additions to any salad.

So rather than a taco salad perched on basic iceberg lettuce, Mexican chains might consider employing a mix of some crunchy, slightly bitter arugula in combination with butter lettuce and mustard greens, whose deep green color and pleasing texture could make for a more satisfying meal. When piled high with shredded pork, pepper jack cheese, pinto beans, and a creamy salsa dressing, the combination would prove irresistible.

Pizza chains determined to distinguish their salad offerings from others could look to an Italian pepperoni salad comprising radicchio, red romaine lettuce, and beet greens for a fresh, earthy flavor and pleasing, colorful appearance. Tossed with mozzarella, garlic-bread croutons, pepperoncinis, and other delectable add-ins, this salad would be a true departure from entrées available elsewhere.

And at chicken chains, a nest of curly endive and romaine lettuce would provide a satisfying home base for fried or grilled chicken pieces scattered among herbed, spiced croutons, cherry tomatoes, corn, and buttermilk ranch dressing.

Would this added emphasis on salad innovation and leafy greens be worth the fuss for today’s quick-serve chains? Given that 59 percent of quick-service operators surveyed as part of the National Restaurant Association’s 2008 Restaurant Forecast reported that entrée salads were growing in popularity, I’d say the answer might well be a resounding “yes.”

As COO and culinary director at San Francisco’s Center for Culinary Development, Marc Halperin assists food and beverage companies with new product development and consumer research.