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QSR Feature
Redefining the Salad
Iceberg lettuce will no longer cut it. Diners looking for healthier options are also looking for dynamic flavors.
Fast food salad

Remember when the phrase “I’ll just have a salad” was the kind of trendy statement used to convey an impression on a first date or perhaps polite disdain for the entire menu? Well, no more. Consumers requesting a salad today are looking for very specific things: variety, vitamins, flavor, and a full stomach.

And if only iceberg comes to mind when you think salad, think again. The salad has evolved.

“You can’t just throw iceberg in a bowl and call it salad,” says Shane Thompson, founder of Shane’s Rib Shack. “You have to put some thought into it. It is no longer just an add-on.”

According to the National Restaurant Association’s (NRA) 2008 Restaurant Industry Forecast, 59 percent of quick-service operators report entrée salads are growing in popularity. Additionally, the Washington, D.C–based organization found that 76 percent of consumers say they are trying to eat more healthfully when they visit restaurants than they did two years ago.

In fact, “The Salad Category Report” from Technomic Information Services reveals 55 percent of consumers say they order a salad most of the time or every time when dining away from home. Technomic also found that 43 percent of consumers are likely to purchase a salad if it is unique, new, and sounds appealing.

The NRA’s 2007 Chef Survey provides further insight to the redefinition and the evolution of the salad. In an Internet survey of 1,282 members of the American Culinary Federation, chefs were given a list of 194 cuisines, food and beverage items, and preparation methods and asked to rate items as “cool,” “passé,” or “perennial favorite.”

Coming in at No. 2 on the list were locally and organically grown produce. More than 80 percent of the responding chefs ranked locally grown produce as hot, while 75 percent rated the organic variety nearly as trendy.

Other hot items on the list included: Asian flavors, vegetarian/vegan entrée salads, and balsamic vinegar and vinaigrettes. Farther down the list were Mexican or Tex-Mex entrée salads, with 40 percent of chefs saying they were hot while 39 percent reported they were passé. Main course salads with salmon, steak, shrimp, and chicken were also factored into the survey, each receiving lukewarm responses.

Cobb and Caesar salads, both considered early entrée platforms in the emerging salad trend, were also on the list, with 45 percent of chefs saying Cobb was passé and 51 percent reporting that Caesar is a perennial favorite.

The Revolution

What began as a knee-jerk reaction to consumer demand for healthier choices sparked a lucrative and ever-evolving offering for quick-serves and fast-casuals.

Chick-fil-A, for example, offers a Chargrilled Chicken & Fruit salad. Priced at $6.35, it is made fresh daily with its sliced grilled chicken served on a bed of romaine and iceberg, topped with red cabbage, carrots, and a blend of cheddar and Monterrey Jack cheeses. It also includes strawberries, red grapes, apples and oranges, granola, and choices of dressing from blue cheese to reduced-fat berry balsamic vinaigrette.

Like Chick-fil-A’s salad, Wendy’s Garden Sensations are made fresh throughout the day. The line includes the Mandarin Chicken, Chicken BLT, and Caesar salads. Each is based on a bed of spring mix, romaine, and iceberg lettuces and topped with warm fillets.

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