A. Elizabeth Sloan

Salads are rapidly moving center stage and center plate. They topped the National Restaurant Association’s list of menu items diners ordered more often in the past two years, up 37%, followed by chicken and seafood entrees.

At home, salads are the most likely main-meal accompaniment after potatoes, and as major sandwich and fast-food chains are moving toward menuing upscaled main-dish salads, like Atlanta Bread Co.’s Chop Stix Chicken Salad and Schlotzky’s Mediterranean Eggplant Feta Salad, there’s simply no end to “grab and graze” in sight!

According to Restaurants & Institution’s 2001 Menu Census, America’s most frequently purchased restaurant salads are Caesar/chicken Caesar; chef/julienne; taco salad; tuna, chicken, and potato salads; cole slaw; cottage cheese; pasta/macaroni; and tossed green. Chinese chicken salad was most likely to be added to menus. However, slaw is likely to be Apple Cabbage or Blue Cheese, and potato salad Jalapeño or Sesame-Ginger Asian Vinaigrette!

Salads/vegetables represent 9% of restaurant entrees/main dishes, according to the NPD Group. And new entree salads increased 6.7% in chain restaurants last year, according to the Chain Account Menu Survey (CAMS). More diverse than ever, entree salads accounted for 9% of all fish and 11% of all cheese menu mentions. At the same time, they continue to shift toward the “composed” salad (with specified dressing) and away from “dressing choice,” with nearly two-thirds of new entree salads falling into the composed salad category. Caesar continues its popularity, accounting for one-third of new composed salads, with new variations including steak, shrimp, salmon, and lobster.

Retro salads like Chef, Cobb, Wilted, Waldorf, and Iceberg lettuce wedges have made a triumphant return, often with a creative twist. The fresh-cut, easy-to-assemble Waldorf salad kit from Ready Pac, Irwindale, Calif., is right on target. Also coming on strong are chopped salads; rice, pasta, or exotic grains mixed with greens; and ethnic salads, such as Island salads with fruity dressings, coconut fried shrimp, and tropical fruits/nuts; variations on the classic taco salad; and Asian salads with exotic greens, Asian veggies, noodles, and soy/vinaigrette. Fried chicken salad variations are a major new direction. Red Robin’s Crispy Chicken Tender Salad, 99 Restaurant’s Crispy Chicken BBQ Ranch Salad, and Allie’s American Grille’s Southern Fried Chicken Salad with buttermilk ranch dressing are variations on this cross-textural theme.

Salad-savvy chefs have also been busy creating new mixes. Mesclun, arugula, micro and baby greens, and Asian exotics are trendy bases. Fruits, nuts—often candied, seasoned, or caramelized—and crisp fried noodles have become popular salad additions. Claim Jumpers’ Candied Walnut and Asian Pear Salad and Legal Seafoods’ Tortilla, Apple, and Goat Cheese Salad with grilled shrimp or scallops further exemplify the trend. Popular signature items include exotic croutons, including those made from focaccia or artisan breads, oversized versions, those fried in specialty oils, and super-spicy versions. Watch for greater use of miniature vegetables, very young versions of lettuce, baby artichokes, root vegetables, baby corn, micro-sprouts, and small edible flowers to add flair.

Organic and locally grown produce is another appealing trend. NRA reports that restaurants are offering locally grown produce in their salad: nearly 90% of restaurants with an average check of $25 and higher, 65% $15–25, 55% $8–15, and 48% below $8.

Last, the lines between salads and other popular foods are beginning to blur. La Madeleine’s offers a Grilled Shaved Chicken and Caesar Salad sandwich, the Corner Bakery a Chicken Slaw Coleslaw sandwich, and Manhattan Bagel a Village Veggie, a salad atop focaccia bread. Chefs are topping meat, fish, or poultry with mini-salad look-alikes and plating them over exotic salad variations. Schlotzky’s offers a Baby Spinach Salad Pizza, and Darden’s Red Lobster plates basil-infused grilled salmon atop arugula salad with sun-dried tomato vinaigrette.

Salads can give nearly any dish a new form. Witness the transformation of classic Hollandaise-laden Eggs Benedict to Bruschetta Eggs Benedict, a poached egg served over fresh basil, tomatoes, specialty greens, and shaved cheese on toasted crusty bread.

Salad kits, such as Taco Fiesta and Oriental from Fresh Express and Italian and Santa Fe Caesar from Ready-Pac Produce, make enjoying a wide variety of great-tasting greens easier than ever. With double-digit growth since it began a decade ago, the fresh-cut segment is expected to top $15 billion in sales by 2005. And with less than one-quarter of adults under age 55 and only one-third of adults age 55 and over meeting the “Five-A-Day” recommendation, the potential for growth is tremendous!

Contributing Editor
President, Sloan Trends & Solutions, Inc.
Escondido, Calif.