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R&IEditorial Archives2004 — June 1 — Food

Green Goddesses
Main-dish salads continue to drive sales, but customers demand more than garden-variety starters and sides.

When summer strikes, customers crave all things cool, crisp and refreshing. Thankfully, their orders couldn’t be better timed. Come June, walk-in coolers are packed with a harvest of fresh vegetables, lettuces and salad sundries. This seasonal synergy has inspired some stellar signatures over the years—from the Brown Derby’s colorful Cobb to Waldorf’s famous apple-raisin medley. These and other well-designed, crunchy compositions sate warm-weather appetites and keep customers coming back.

According to Reed Research Group/ R&I 2003 Menu Census data, salads are a ubiquitous favorite: 93% of all foodservice operators menu them, and a whopping 36% are signature creations. It’s no wonder so many operations design their own: Not only does summer’s bounty inspire chefs to create captivatingly cool dishes, but signatures capture the highest sales average of all salads across all markets.

Hardly fancy but always a diner favorite, a wedge of iceberg lettuce draped with creamy dressing epitomizes honest freshness.

Over the past few decades, leafy greens and their tossed counterparts have settled in nicely at the center of the plate where, paired with proteins, they hold their own as entrées. Acting as the star has not diminished the role of salads as healthful, substantial starters.

“Currently, there’s a huge focus on low-carb and high-protein, and as a result, we’re definitely seeing an increase in salad sales,” says George McNeill, executive chef of the New York Marriott Marquis in New York City, where he oversees four restaurants and extensive catering venues. “We’re seeing a lot of appetizers where salads are a main component. So you get a great crab cake and a great crisp salad to go with it.”

Operators report that customers are willing to pay more for ingredients that are more than just run of the mill. “They want more than iceberg or romaine,” says McNeill, who works with growers, customizing lettuce mixes to create different flavor profiles. “Sometimes, you use a red leaf, other times you want a crisper or a bitter flavor.” Minutes before serving his slightly spicy field greens mix, McNeill lightly douses leaves with a sweet-sour blood-orange vinaigrette using a squeeze bottle. “Crisp and fresh, it looks like it came right out of the garden,” he says of the presentation.

Green Options
Operators find it helpful to play up salad’s healthful attributes. Wendy’s, the Dublin, Ohio-based quick-service chain that introduced fast-food salad bars in 1979 (they were discontinued in 2002 with the rollout of the chain’s Garden Sensations line), focuses on salads’ healthful appeal when advertising its newest additions, including this summer’s Chicken Salad. “The salad is an excellent source of protein, iron, vitamins A and C, and a good source of calcium and dietary fiber,” boasts the company’s marketing material.

The Captain D’s Seafood chain offers two versions of its Oriental salad: with broiled shrimp (above) or bite-size fried shrimp.

In the noncommercial sector, healthcare providers menu more than twice the number of salads offered in college dining facilities, according to Menu Census. But the attention of the younger generation has been snagged with the latest salad trends: bold flavors, customization and organic focus.

At Herb’n Farm, a brand of Mill Valley, Calif.-based Wild Sage Foods that has an exclusive licensing agreement with Gaithersburg, Md.-based Sodexho USA, salads feed into the concept’s healthful focus: 80% to 85% of the ingredients are organic. “These folks are foodies,” says Wild Sage Founder Lauren Bell, describing the demand for healthful dining options at the University of Colorado, Herb’n Farm’s first market. Students order zippy salad compositions, such as Asian Persuasion, made with Mandarin orange slices, cilantro and rice noodles, or create their own by choosing seven ingredients that are tossed to order.

“We have the same customer group day after day, and for them to tire of the food is inevitable,” says Bell. “The more customizable options we can give them, the better.”

Praising Caesar
One method for successful salad construction is the marriage of opposites—salty and sweet, hot and cold, crunchy and soft, and pungent and mild—to create vibrantly balanced profiles. Another approach is to add unique twists to proven favorites.

When it comes to menu frequency and sales strength, Caesar salad indisputably reigns. More than half of operators offer something that looks or tastes like or is simply called a Caesar according to Menu Census.

At Luna Park, a bohemian-chic bistro in Los Angeles where salads comprise about 20% of the lunch menu, Caesar salad is of the most popular appetizers. But this is not a stodgy old Caesar. Made with crispy hearts of romaine rather than dark-green leaves, its flavor bursts in the mouth. “We top it with a blizzard of Parmesan,” says Joe Jack, executive chef and co-owner. He prefers to tone down the traditional garlic, but wouldn’t think of omitting anchovies.

Luna Park tosses watercress, pear slices, hazelnuts and soft Cambozola cheese with lemon-shallot vinaigrette for a refreshing salad.

Captain D’s, a 568-unit, Nashville-based chain, is famous for family-style seafood. But the company doesn’t overlook Caesar’s allure: When a new line of salads was rolled out in April, Caesar with blackened chicken was among the choices.

Charles Bruce, Captain D’s senior vice president of marketing, says the chain was looking to entice new customers with bold flavors while still accommodating repeat guests’ taste for the familiar. This Caesar offered the perfect middle ground: The smoky, grilled taste of the meat is refreshed by cool greens, sweet grape tomatoes, shredded Parmesan, red onions, croutons and creamy Caesar dressing. Chopped eggs add deeper dimension, and a newly designed, larger bowl facilitates tossing.

The company tested the salads at $3.99 and $4.99 price points, and found that both a substantial starter and light main dish sold equally well. Captain D’s opted for the latter.

Caesars aren’t the only classic salads that drive sales with creative adaptations. At Mangia, a fast-casual breakfast and lunch concept with locations in New York City, the antipasto table features upwards of 60 salad options each day.

Nancy Jessup, executive chef of the chain’s Wall Street location, uses classic salads as a canvas for seasonal ingredients. Her blueberry Waldorf adds whole berries to the expected apples, and uses puréed ones to sweeten mustard-spiked orange vinaigrette.

“The beauty of our salads are their diversity,” she says, reflecting on the wide array of offerings from which guests select sides, starters or compile entire meals. “You can come in with three generations and everyone finds something they like.”

Global Greens
Salads are as American as apple pie and no other country can claim as many memorable versions. But ethnic-themed operations often find that it makes sense to skew their salad menu so it suits American palates.

Vietnamese cuisine, for example, is famous for refreshing and highly aromatic salads, served as starters or passed around the table with entrées. Le Colonial, a stylish French-Vietnamese restaurant in Chicago, does brisk salad business at lunch and dinner as well as late night in the lounge.

Chicken Bombay is among salads Sodexho USA added at its Jazzman’s Café units.

Executive Chef Quoc Luong says he’s subtly adapted traditional dressings, which call for liberal use of fermented fish sauce, for more mainstream appetites that might reject the sauce’s pungency. “Some of the flavors are toned down a bit, but we didn’t change them,” he says. In addition, he often takes traditional main dishes, such as grilled scallops with garlicky noodles, and reinterprets them into creative appetizer salads. Tangled with heaps of herbs and crunchy peanuts, and doused with the sweet-tangy lime-chile dressing, it’s a top seller.

Roberto Santibaez, culinary director at Rosa Mexicano, with locations in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Atlanta, notes that Mexican cuisine doesn’t traditionally feature salads. “Uncooked vegetables were dangerous because of bacteria, so they were more often cooked,” he says. But Santibaez is not about to skip salads: Using indigenous Mexican ingredients, he created a signature toss of lettuce, cilantro, julienned jicama, toasted pumpkin seeds and lime-based jalapeo vinaigrette.

“Salads, especially now, have been our best sellers,” says Medhat Ibrahim, co-owner of New York City’s Casa La Femme North, an Egyptian restaurant. He uses salads with familiar flavor profiles to introduce his country’s cheeses, which are rarely seen in the States. Gibnah domiaty, a smooth, creamy cheese that’s not as salty as feta, tastes right at home with torn fresh mint, grape tomatoes and extra-virgin olive oil, while gibnah romi, a sharp, salty, hard cheese, performs the same role as Parmesan shaved over arugula and watercress.

Salad Theater
Tableside preparations of salads were de rigueur in earlier dining eras and understandably so: prepared last minute, a salad is at its best, capturing freshness and immediacy in the bowl.

Joseph Law, executive chef at Villanova University, says the drama isn’t lost on students and staff at Dougherty Hall, one of 17 dining facilities on campus. Two months ago, he launched a tossed-to-order program that’s been outpacing the salad bar steps away. “The kids walk up—the ingredients are laid out—and they pick out what they want,” says Law, pointing out that they can choose from 12 dressings. “They seem to enjoy having it made for them, and they’re happy to wait.”

At Ambrozia Cafe and Wine Bar in Albuquerque, N.M., Chef Sam Etheridge mixes greens with Gorgonzola, frizzled onions, roasted pecans, roasted pears and apples with a honey-mustard vinaigrette.

Jazzman’s Café, an upscale coffee concept and retail brand that Sodexho operates in 100 healthcare, business-and-industry and university locations, also discovered the sles strength of tossed-to-order salads when they added new stations to three markets last September.

“One of the key components of these salads is the ‘show’ aspect. By allowing guests to be a part of that, we find there’s a higher perceived value,” says Erik Quick, vice president of operations for Sodexho Retail Brands. In this case, customers choose pre-designed salads such as Italian chopped or Bombay chicken, and watch as the ingredients are tossed.

Jazzman’s doesn’t restrict tossed-to-order salads to the center of the plate. Appetizer-sized salads, available on their own or in a sandwich combo, capture as much as 20% to 30% of all salad sales. To increase transactions and satisfy customers on the go, it offers packaged grab-and-go salads. “Grab-and-go used to be all of sales, now it’s about 50-50,” Quick says.

Whether tossed, packaged or arranged at a garde manger station, operators know that salads are sure summer sellers. “They are a great way to maximize your menu mix and drive profitability,” says Quick, pointing out that per transaction, salads are more profitable than sandwiches and other quick-service fare. “Lettuce has a lot of volume to it,” he adds.

  • Blueberry Waldorf Salad

Salads Across the States
Whether reinventing a classic salad or tossing their own inspiration, operators reflect today’s dining trends in their summer salad bowls. Look for bold flavor pairings, international ingredients, farm-fresh quality greens, artisanal cheeses and vinaigrettes that utilize everything from pomegranate molasses to tamarind.

Golden-beet and goat-cheese salad with bitter greens and balsamic-walnut vinaigrette
Citrine, Los Angeles

Asparagus salad with red pepper, poached quail egg and caper-red onion vinaigrette
Gary Danko, San Francisco

Warm truffled potato salad with porcini cream, aged Gryere and field greens
Harvest Restaurant, Madison, Wis.

Avocado and wehani rice salad with grilled vegetables
Hominy Grill, Charleston, S.C.

Spring greens tossed with warm chanterel- le mushrooms, tomatoes, prosciutto, candied walnuts and sherry vinaigrette
Ivy’s, Kansas City, Mo.

Coleslaw with blue cheese, red and green cabbage and julienned carrots
J. Alexander’s, multiple locations

Fresh and roasted vegetables on greens with goat Gouda, spiced almonds and shallot vinaigrette
Lunchbox Food Co., New York City

Mixed greens with lightly cured mangos, blue cheese, sherry vinaigrette and spiced toasted almonds
Norman’s, West Hollywood, Calif.

Shredded green papaya with dried shrimp and peanuts, topped with spicy garlic-lime dressing
Typhoon!, Portland, Ore.

Dungeness crab, avocado, oranges, citrus vinaigrette, hearts of palm salad
Zoria Restaurant, Sarasota, Fla.

Spinning SaladsTossing successful salads requires one part inspiration, one part creative budgeting and a solid grasp of chemistry. Some tricks of the trade:

  • Dressings, vinaigrettes and salt draw water out of salad greens, causing them to become limp. Dress and toss gently, just before serving.
  • If serving pricey baby greens isn’t economically feasible, mix them with less expensive lettuces at a ratio that works for the food cost.
  • If vinaigrettes are heavy and/or creamy, place them in the bottom or side of the bowl; add ingredients little by little while tossing. Most operators prefer to toss by hand (covered in rubber gloves, of course), in order to fully coat each ingredient.
  • Whole or chopped herbs tossed into salads are a chef’s secret, lending invisible, aromatic counterpoints to simple greens.
  • Don’t add spice powders or blends directly to a vinaigrette. Cook them into a liquid-based paste, chill, then add spoonfuls to acid and oil for fuller, more-integrated flavor.
  • Nut oils such as hazelnut or walnut add depth and richness to vinaigrettes. Pair these dressings with their crunchy nut counterparts.
  • Extend salads after summer fruits run out with dried fruits such as currants, cherries, raisins and apricots, which taste like intensifications of the fruit and add a chewy texture.
  • Salt, particularly fresh-tasting sea salt, brings salad flavors into focus.
  • Dana Bowen is a New York City-based freelance writer.

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