Protein-packed salads drive repeat business from consumers who want healthful, one-plate meals.
This article first appeared in the 1 June 2007 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).
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By Kate Leahy, Associate Editor
A stainless-steel salad bowl is one the best places for chefs to experiment with ingredient combinations and flavor profiles.
"We joke that there are 9 million ways to make a salad," says Carl Griffenkranz, vice president and brand leader for Atlanta-based Doc Green's Salads and Grill, which lists 10 salads on the menu as well as a handful of toppings and vinaigrettes that form the basis of custom-made salads.
Menu variety is increasingly important at many concepts, a trend spurred by willingness on the part of consumers to explore creative combinations of ingredients. "My biggest surprise when we first opened was how relatively unpopular the Caesar was. A lot of our customers have progressed beyond the Caesar salad," Griffenkranz remarks, explaining that the most popular salad at Doc Green's, the Dr. Beeks, features feta cheese, candied walnuts and raspberry vinaigrette spiked with ginger.
Not only does this open-minded approach to salads indicate that the days of forlorn sides of lettuce, shredded carrot and tomato wedges are nearly gone, it also ensures that room is being carved in menus for a growing array of main-course salads. For upscale restaurants, corporate contract services and colleges, these entrée options are a critical component of lunchtime business. For nimble chains that offer healthful meal choices, main-course salads are a way to gain consumer loyalty and generate repeat business. The results are creative, protein-filled salads that appeal to a range of consumers, from foodies battling palate fatigue to professionals watching both the clock and their waistlines.
Let's Do Lunch
Adding more entrée salads to menus can be a simple way to grow lunch business. At Om Restaurant in Cambridge, Mass., dinner entrées that range from $22 to $38 place the restaurant in the special-occasion category. Those prices are a harder sell at lunch, acknowledges Executive Chef Rachel Klein, who says customers at lunch aren't as likely to linger over an elaborate dining experience.
For Klein, this means turning some dinner appetizers and entrées into affordable lunch salads. A duck confit appetizer on the dinner menu becomes duck confit salad while roasted lamb loin is amended for lunch with the addition of arugula tossed with lemon vinaigrette. So far, the technique has been an effective means to stay true to the restaurant's aspirations while broadening its noontime appeal. There's an additional benefit too. The lunch salads are easier for the small kitchen to execute while it prepares for dinner service.
"I definitely think [consumers] are looking for the balance of being able to go out to lunch and get back to work afterwards," Klein observes, adding that high-protein salads address consumers' growing health consciousness.
Chef-partner Jim Botsacos of Molyvos in New York City agrees. "They want light, easy, fast. We'll get them out in 45 minutes," he says of his lunch-hour customers, adding that he dedicates a significant section of the lunch menu to lighter fare. "Give them the greens, the source of protein, then add a light dressing. Have salads with cheese and some without," he advises.
Not only do protein-focused salads hold promise for upscale dining, they also perform well as grab-and-go airport fare. Vito Buscemi, culinary director for travel and hospitality services at Buffalo, N.Y.-based contractor Delaware North, has noticed that demand for healthier, higher-quality options has grown at Vito's Market, the company's proprietary upscale deli, which has locations in several airports. He's also surprised at how well a salad of mixed greens with chicken, dried cranberries, pecans and canned pears (pictured above) has performed.
"People really took to it. It sells better than the chef's salad and the Caesar salad," he says. "It's not too far out of the box," Buscemi explains. "And it's consistent."
Room to Grow
The potential barely has been tapped for salads as main courses, say some operators.
"I think it's still early in the salad category," says Griffenkranz.
Others are equally enthused. "The multicourse meal is fading out," says Chef Mark Wachowiak of Mythos Restaurant at the Universal Orlando Resort in Orlando. He's given a classic spinach salad with hot bacon vinaigrette a new twist by adding blueberries, which provide tart sweetness to the savory salad. The bright salad has proved to be a hit with resort visitors and many opt for add-ons such as grilled chicken, beef, shrimp or scallops. And that makes sense to Wachowiak.
"A salad is a meal and it no longer has the feel of just an appetizer," he says.
Seafood salads, such as grilled octopus salad and seafood bread salad, sell well year-round at Greek restaurant Molyvos in New York City.
Flavor focus: For Molyvos' Seafood Cretan Bread Salad (l.), marinated scallops, calamari, mussels, octopus and shrimp are seasoned with lemon, olive oil, celery, mint and dill. The salad is served atop a hard bread biscuit that is soaked in olive oil and lemon juice.
Hot or not? Chef-partner Jim Botsacos serves it chilled.
"Even salads typically aren't all vegetarian," notes Jenifer Hansen, director of operations for Le Colonial in Chicago. Enter tofu. When thoughtfully incorporated and well seasoned, this go-to vegetarian protein source fits seamlessly into satisfying salads.
Notable example: Le Colonial's Goi Ngo Sen (l.), a lotus root salad tossed with cucumbers, tomatoes, Thai basil, fried shallots and fried, julienned tofu.
Hot or not? It's served cold, making this salad perfect for summer menus.
Chef Rachel Klein of Om in Cambridge, Mass., likes to turn evening entrées into lunchtime salads. She found that lean lamb loins work great to this effect.
Taste maker: Klein took a grilled lamb loin entrée and modified it slightly, serving grilled, sliced loins with green olive jam and arugula tossed with lemon vinaigrette and Parmesan curls. The lamb loin and arugula salad now shows up regularly (l.).
Hot or not? Klein takes the middle road, serving the lamb warm.
BEEF For Chef Chris Bocchino of The Whisper Lounge in Los Angeles, steak salads are brisk sellers.
Good Tip: Bocchino pairs marinated tri-tip beef with romaine hearts, roasted bell peppers and a dressing made with roasted shallot and blue cheese (l.). It is served with garlic-rubbed crostini.
Hot or not? "We cook the tri-tip in the morning, cool it, slice it and portion it out."
CHICKEN It's still king among protein add-ons, especially popular when it is grilled. "Most consumers associate grilled chicken with a salad," says Carl Griffenkranz, vice president and brand leader of Atlanta-based Doc Green's Salads and Grill.
Best seller: Dr. Beeks (l.), a salad comprising field greens, dried cranberries, feta cheese, candied walnuts and raspberry vinaigrette, is a top performer.
Hot or not? "Of people who order protein, 60% are expecting it hot," Griffenkranz says. "That's where the grill comes into play."
VENISON Robbie Lewis, executive chef at Bacar in San Francisco, says salads are all about contrasting flavors and textures, with respect to the protein. "Venison has a pretty mild flavor profile," he says. "You don't want to give it a heavy-handed preparation."
Seasonal Sensibility: For his grilled venison tenderloin salad (above), Lewis slices nectarines and tosses them with endive, arugula, toasted pistachios and rosemary-lavender-honey vinaigrette.
Hot or not? Lewis serves the venison hot.
Chains Toss It Up
A roundup of salads served at some of the largest restaurant chains show that most have a foothold in the land of greens. And why not? Spiffed up with on-trend ingredients and glossed with bold-flavoured dressings, salads are pretty much a must in any foodservice setting.
McDonald's Oak Brook, Ill. Southwest Salad With Crispy Chicken: Greens with cilantro-and-lime-glazed crispy chicken, roasted corn, poblano peppers, tortilla strips and a lime wedge served with Southwest dressing.
KFC, Louisville, Ky. Roasted Caesar Salad: Traditional Caesar salad with cubes of roasted chicken.
Subway, Milford, Conn. Sandwiches turn into salads on request with the addition of lettuce, red onion, tomatoes, cucumbers, green bell peppers, carrots and olives.
Wendy's, Dublin, Ohio. Cranberry Pecan Chicken Salad: Mixed greens with roasted chicken, pecans, cranberries, and Mandarin oranges.
Taco Bell, Irvine, Calif. Taco Salad Express: Shredded lettuce topped with ground beef, beans, Cheddar cheese, diced tomatoes and sour cream with sides of salsa and tortilla chips.