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2005 Menu Census: Salads

14 December 2005

This article first appeared in the 1 September 2005 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).

R&I is the USA's leading source of food and business-trend information and exclusive research on operators and restaurant patrons. Editorial coverage spans the entire foodservice industry, including chains, independent restaurants, hotels and institutions. To find out more about R&I, visit its website www.foodservice411.com

Quick-service R&D teams, Smith Barney analyst Mark Kalinowski noted two years ago, were fast at work on menu items to boost sales. They aimed to court women who were blasé about typical burger menus and attract lapsed customers who'd defected to fast casual. Their weapon of choice was salad.

Today, most chains give prominent play to lettuce-based offerings. While most are familiar in make-up, they not only sell well but in some cases they've helped recast brand perceptions. "What's next, valet parking?" asked a McDonald's billboard touting salads.

A healthy halo helps too. R&I's 2005 Menu Forecast study found that of operators planning to add items to address health concerns, salads, at a 37% rate of mention, were cited most often.

Caesar salad appears on all of the five largest chains' menus. Such exposure doesn't diminish popularity in other segments; it is widely menued, often with a topping of chicken, salmon, shrimp or calamari. Croutons are one way to differentiate. At Delmonico Steakhouse Las Vegas, they're Creole spiced; at Alfredo's of Rome in Orlando it's a "paper-thin herbed crouton" while at Capi's Italian Kitchen in Chicago, the crouton component is a pizza bread bowl.

Cobb salads, Asian chicken salads and steak salads also make frequent appearances. Tuna and egg salads for the most part have jumped to the sandwich board, showing up between bread. BLTs, on the other hand, occasionally ditch bread for the bowl; Wendy's offers a salad with bacon, lettuce and tomatoes as do Cracker Barrel and Meadowvale Elementary School in Elk River, Minn.

As first course, salads stake familiar ground on the plain-and-simple path; tossed and mixed salads are nearly everywhere. Baby greens, arugula and mesclun add upscale touches while add-ins such as beets, goat cheese, candied pecans and dried cranberries enhance offerings.

On the Menu

When it comes to salads, lettuce unites while creativity separates and makes them distinct.

  • El Paso Shrimp Salad with mixed greens, mango, jicama, tomato, avocado and tequila vinaigrette.-Gladstone's Malibu, Los Angeles
  • Steakhouse Salad of sirloin, greens, tomatoes, onions, cinnamon pecans, "Aussie crunch" and blue-cheese vinaigrette. -Outback Steakhouse, multiple locations
  • Asparagus and grilled bread salad with wild mushrooms and red-pepper-goat cheese. -Bar Americain, New York City
  • Grilled salmon niÁ§oise salad on baby greens with haricots verts, capers, hard-cooked eggs, potatoes, tomatoes, red onions and balsamic vinaigrette. -Miami University Carillon Catering, Miami, Ohio

R&I's 2005 Menu Census study finds significant differences in how commercial and non-commercial operators purchase lettuce for salads and other uses:

- CommercialNon-commercial
Buy lettuce by the head53%29%
Buy lettuce torn/packaged27%35%
Buy both ways17%36%
Other/don't purchase3%0%
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