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R&IEditorial Archives2000 — July 15 — Food

Goin' Green
Top 400 companies freshen up salad menus.

Woody Faulk, vice president of brand development at Atlanta-based Chick-fil-A, would like to credit the chain’s new line of salads to in-house creative genius. Instead, he has a vocal customer to thank.

That customer, quoted in a salad story that ran in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “went after Chick-fil-A’s salads,” Faulk says. “I got mad!” he adds. But instead of getting even, Faulk tracked down the customer and asked for more of her thoughts on the chain’s salad lineup. “That’s where the research began,” he says, adding that he used the customer as a salad taster as new products rolled through the R&D process.

Nearly two years later, that customer’s input is evident in a four-item salad menu that has tripled salad sales. The new lineup—char-grilled chicken Caesar, char-grilled chicken garden, a side salad and Chick-n-Strips salad—features gourmet touches to appeal to adults. The greens base includes romaine and iceberg lettuces, and Roma tomatoes have replaced the hothouse variety. Customers can choose from nine dressings and top their salads with buttered croutons and roasted sunflower seeds.

Chick-fil-A is not the only chain refreshing its salad offerings. Irvine, Calif.-based El Torito has just added a fajita salad, which joins its signature Mexican Caesar on the menu. Pasta Connection, the Italian kiosk inside Arby’s restaurants, is testing three new salads. Houlihan’s, the Kansas City, Mo.-based dinnerhouse chain, totally revamped its salads along with the rest of the menu a year ago, and more changes are in the works.


The recipe for a successful salad is easy, says Mike Winkler, vice president of culinary at Houlihan’s. “If you start with fresh and add texture and flavor, you’ve got it,” he says.

Naturally, the 10 salads on Houlihan’s menu reflect his philosophy. The Caribbean salad with shrimp ($10.95) layers marinated 16/20 shrimp on a bed of field greens, romaine and head lettuce. Cucumbers and jícama add texture, and cashews, fried tortilla strips and a lavosh cracker add crunch. The Chinese grilled chicken salad ($9.25), a good seller, tops that same greens mix with skewered grilled chicken tenderloins, with cashews, toasted sesame seeds, snow peas and crisp noodles providing crunch and texture.

Overall, the new salads sport bigger portions and higher spice profile, Winkler says. “Everything was mainstream before,” he adds.

At La Madeleine, Remy Schaal, director of research and development, agrees with Winkler’s salad assessment: “We use the freshest greens and balsamic vinaigrette with extra virgin olive oil. We do not compromise with cheap ingredients.” That’s important, considering salads account for about 20% of the menu mix, Schaal adds.

The Dallas-based chain’s signature salad is its Caesar, which tosses house-made Caesar dressing with a romaine and leaf lettuce mix, then tops it with citrus-marinated salmon or chicken ($4.29 for a plain, $8.45 for salmon and $7.45 for chicken). A seasonal mesclun mix lends interest to another La Madeleine classic, Wild Field, to which customers can also add chicken or salmon ($3.29 plain, $7.95 for salmon, $6.95 for chicken).

Other salads include shrimp Dijonnaise, penne pasta and a salad sampler. The entire selection is meant to court a health-conscious customer, though Schaal admits the heavier, mayonnaise-dressed salads might not fit that bill. Nevertheless, “it’s a healthier, lighter image,” he says. The salads also make a nice side offering to a half-sandwich, he adds.

For Pasta Connection, the Italian-foods kiosk being added to many Arby’s restaurants, the guiding philosophy behind its three test salads was to add as few ingredients to the menu as possible, says Tony Seta, vice president of menu and development for Arby’s owner Triarc Restaurant Group, Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “When we start product development, we look at what we have [in house] as a mystery basket,” he says.

Based on available products, Seta cooked up three salads—chicken pasta Caesar, antipasto salad and garden pasta salad ($2.99 to $3.99). The Caesar combines roast chicken, provolone cheese and Caesar dressing with a pasta-greens base. The antipasto tops that same base with pinwheels of sub meats found on Pasta Connection sandwiches, and the garden salad tops the pasta-greens mixture with tomato and onion.

All told, Seta added the salads to the menu and increased inventory by only two items: Caesar dressing and the greens mix, a blend of iceberg and romaine.

Roma tomatoes, croutons and sunflower seeds are only half of the new salad story at Chick-fil-A, Faulk says. Dressings complete the equation. The chain tested 112 new dressings for its Caesar, ultimately opting for the first one it tested, which happens to be a well-known supermarket brand. Another new dressing, a basil vinaigrette, provides a totally different flavor profile. “You get more of a basil flavor, not the vinegar tartness,” Faulk says.

At El Torito, cilantro-pepita dressing makes the Mexican Caesar ($7.99) one of the chain’s signature items, says Carrie Reynolds, vice president of marketing. “If you asked me if a Mexican restaurant could have a signature salad, I would have told you you were crazy, but ours is,” Reynolds says.

The creamy dressing caters to customers’ desires for more spices and flavor, even in salads, she says. Bottled versions are sold in the restaurants. When the chain had a distribution problem a while back, 50 customers e-mailed El Torito’s Web site, asking where they could find the dressing, Reynolds says.

The warm fajita salad, a new offering, is tossed tableside not with dressing, but pico de gallo sauce. The salad features steak or chicken strips with white Cheddar and cotija cheese, roasted pepitas, avocado and tortilla strips ($8.99).

Houlihan’s dressings, including classic Caesar, creamy mango for the Caribbean salad and honey-lime for a spicy chicken salad, are fashioned from a base that’s house-made daily. Echoing Seta at Arby’s, Winkler says the point is cross-utilization of product. “I go back to the basics and we can add spice and protein,” he says. “There are lots of ways of interchanging product.”

Aside from being house-made, the chain’s dressing formula is all in the toss, Winkler says. Because guests differ on dressing preference, the chain mixes entrée salads with 11/2 ounces of dressing, then serves another 1 1/2 ounces on the side. “They can dip their protein in it or whatever,” he says. “It gives them more of a choice.”

Hail Caesar

Once the province of fancy restaurants, Caesars now are everywhere. Here’s a menu sampler:

  • Chick-fil-A: Chargrilled Chicken Caesar, with grilled chicken strips on a bed of romaine lettuce, Parmesan cheese and croutons, $3.39.
  • Arby’s Pasta Connection: Chicken pasta Caesar, with roast chicken and provolone cheese atop a bed of cavatappi pasta and greens, $3.99.
  • El Torito: Mexican Caesar, with romaine lettuce, cilantro-pepita dressing, cotija cheese, tomatoes and crisp tortilla strips, $3.99.
  • El Torito: Caesar del mar, with shrimp sautéed in jalapeo garlic butter, $8.99.
  • La Madeleine: Romaine and leaf-lettuce Caesar topped with citrus-grilled salmon, $8.45, or chicken, $7.45.
  • Houlihan’s: Grilled portobello Caesar, topped with a marinated and grilled portobello mushroom garnished with shaved Parmesan and herb-roasted lavosh cracker, $8.95
  • Houlihan’s: Grilled chicken Caesar, topped with grilled chicken tenderloin skewers, shaved parmesan and an herb-roasted lavosh cracker, $8.95.

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