Super salads

Salads have always been one of the easiest sells and highest-profit menu items in a restaurant, but once customers start to tighten the grip on their wallets, they can also be one of the first menu items to stop moving. However, with the current trends in healthy eating, and buying local and fresh produce, salads are not a tough sell if properly marketed. And, with an average food cost of 25%, there’s no reason for any restaurant to miss out on these potentially high profits. 

A recent online survey by Foodsight, called Consumer Insights on Salad, revealed that people are ordering salads less than they were three years ago when dining out; 43% of consumers now say they sometimes order salads, compared to 89% in 2007. Almost one-third of those surveyed said that they don’t like the salads offered at restaurants. “The biggest trend in the restaurant industry is the impact of customers not eating out as much overall,” says Eric Cronert, Chicago-based vice president of marketing and merchandising at U.S. Foodservice. “I think salads and appetizers, as well as desserts, must follow that natural trend; what customers have done is skip the salad and focus on the main course. But where we do see the growth in salads is as a main course, as entrées. Salads are still being perceived as fairly healthy and as a great value option for consumers, and they’re looking at them as a replacement for some of the heavier meals out there.” How can these consumers be convinced to order salads at your restaurant? Give them something they can’t make at home, make it look appealing so they feel their money is well-spent, and keep prices down so they feel like they’re getting a deal.

Driving Consumption

The Foodsight survey revealed that 42% of respondents would order salads if they were less expensive. For a product that is so inexpensive to make, much of the pricing is done on a perceived value scale that, in the customer’s mind, started changing with the economy. “There is no set pricing formula—it’s the perceived value,” explains Dave Smith, owner of Smith’s Pizza Palace Plus (pizzapalaceplus.com) in Emporium, Pennsylvania. “You’re going to get more money out of a better product, and nothing on the salad is really expensive. It’s all about the care you put into making it look good for the customer.” 

Making your salads stand out can also be done through unique ingredients or serving choices. “You can adapt portion size, scale the salads up, or use different ingredients,” Cronert says. “You could replace some of the protein items with on-trend items such as fresh or dried fruits. Healthier salad offerings with unique alternatives in lettuce and dressings are key to driving consumption.” And, because customers realize they can make salads at home, your ingredients are of utmost importance. “The value for the operator is to differentiate—customers may not be as innovative and adventurous when they make a salad at home compared to what an operator could offer,” Cronert concludes. 

Indeed, price isn’t the only factor that deters people from ordering salads. Many customers have expressed that having higher-quality ingredients or unique flavor offerings would help convince them to purchase a salad, so get creative with the ingredients already in your kitchen. For his best-selling grilled chicken salad, Smith uses the cheese, dough and veggies from his pizza, accented with French fries from his appetizer menu, to offer a flavor combination that customers can’t get anywhere else. 

“Our grilled chicken salad has iceberg lettuce; a few cherry tomatoes; a whole hard-boiled egg, sliced up; eight ounces of French fries; three ounces of pizza cheese, which is a mozzarella-provolone blend; and chicken that’s marinated for several hours and cooked in our pizza oven,” explains Smith. “We then top everything off with a couple of red onion rings and a breadstick made from our crust, which totally changes the image of the salad. That’s not something that you’re going to whip up at home. A garden salad, you can make at home, so we don’t sell a lot of garden salads.”

Getting Dressed

Salad dressing can further work to diversify your menu. For example, by taking a classic dressing and modifying slightly, consumers can identify with their favorite flavors while enjoying something completely new and original. “It’s all about the flavor you can offer,” Cronert explains. “By taking a simple ranch dressing and adding an ingredient, you can really play that up on your menu, especially for pizza operators, who already have the ingredients in-house. Maybe create a black pepper ranch or feta ranch as an alternative to the mundane and to really get customers excited about the flavor options you have.” 

By offering a specific (and delicious) flavor that can’t be found anywhere else, operators help ensure that customers return. “If you try to make something special, people will appreciate it,” says Dave Howey, president of Chicago Franchise Systems, the franchisor of Nancy’s Pizza (nancyspizza.com) restaurants. “If you just throw a cheap dressing on some salad, why bother? But, if operators create their own house dressings for salads—old family recipes that they can create in bulk—they will be appreciated by customers.” Nancy’s Pizza uses a dressing that blends balsamic vinegar and extra-virgin olive oil, which Howey says tops 60% of Nancy’s salads. 

According to Foodsight’s survey, more than half of consumers say that the dressing “makes” a salad. More than one-third of the group wants a creamy dressing, and 32% of the group prefers those dressings to be made in-house. Going for bolder flavors is also a worthwhile goal: One-fifth of consumers in the survey said that bold and spicy fl avors infl uence their decision to buy a salad, and 28% of young people want spicy flavors (up 10% from a 2007 survey). 

Giving customers a healthy dressing option that they can’t enjoy at other restaurants could also keep them coming back for more. “We offer a lot of variety in dressings but, most importantly, all of our offerings are high-fructose corn syrup-free, including our salad dressings, which is important, because many low-fat offerings contain high-fructose corn syrup,” says Bryan Belmer, director of marketing for Tazinos Pizza and Salad Bistro (tazinos.com), an all-you-can-eat salad-and-pizza bar. “It’s a challenge for us, because we’re always on the hunt for new products while maintaining that commitment, as well as MSG- and trans fat-free. It presents challenges, but it’s doable.”

Presentation Pointers

Another great way to get customers interested in your salads is through proper presentation. Having the waitstaff and menu use descriptive words—such as fresh, bold, seasonal, local, creamy or spicy—to describe a salad will make it more appealing than if you simply offer a “garden salad” or “chicken salad.” Also, take time to make the salad look its best before serving to increase the likelihood of repeat purchasers. Make sure the lettuce looks fresh, and add a cherry tomato or some sliced onion rings and peppers for color. “Get away from the basic iceberg lettuce with a couple of croutons and a slice of cucumber; really play up some of the key ingredients that won’t cost more,” Cronert suggests. “You can draw attention to the value and get customers to try it, or you can charge a little more and get customers satisfi ed with the quality you offer.” 

Howey encourages operators to make sure that any salad they serve is something that customers would want to pay for. “One of the things I hear is, ‘You throw some salad and some dressing in a bowl—big deal,’” says Howey. “But no—make a salad and then sit down and eat it. Make it special so that when customers bundle it with your pizza, they walk away saying, ‘Wow.’ That’s what you’re trying to do: create some good products and interesting combinations; name and describe them well; use fresh adjectives. If you do it right, you’ve made a customer who will keep buying that product; if not, put something else on the menu.” 

One easy way for a pizzeria to add value to its salad menu is through the use of bread bowls. Every pizza operator has dough he’s proud of, and it’s easy and fast to turn that into a bowl for salads. “We make eight-ounce dough balls and go through them like wildfire,” says Smith. “You just hammer out one of these balls, butter a stainless steel salad bowl, smash the dough around it and cook it for five minutes. They turn out really nice for us, and it’s cheap—you figure a couple of pennies for the dough, and you can sell it for $3. Anybody can do it, and I’m surprised more people don’t—you’ve got a high profit on it.” Howey agrees. Most of Nancy’s salads come standard in a bread bowl, which instantly ups the perceived value of the product.

Build Your Own

Foodsight’s research shows that 48% of consumers would like to see more salad bars in restaurants, and 45% also want a build-your-own option to give them control of their salad ingredients. “You’re seeing fewer and fewer salad bars over the last eight to 10 years, but I don’t think the desire has gone away for create-your-own salad bars,” Belmer says. “People like the ability to make their own salad.” 

According to the survey, people ages 18 to 24 are more likely to choose a salad option off the menu, but older age groups prefer salad bars or customizable options. And, while younger people are more likely to choose premade salads, 75% of the 18-to-24 crowd would still like to see customization options. “People are looking to have things the way they want, and offering a fully stocked and very fresh salad bar gives people that opportunity,” Belmer says. “That puts the onus on us to provide them with good toppings and make sure everything is fresh and attractive.” 

If you don’t want to install a salad bar, having a salad menu (perhaps with customizable ingredient combinations) is something every pizzeria should consider. “I’d tell operators who want to expand their menus not to hesitate—it’s not hard, and adding variety is good,” says Smith. “You need a minimal investment for making salads: refrigeration, a bag of lettuce, salad bowls. You might spend a couple hundred bucks up front but, at $8 a salad, you’ll make it back in no time.” 

Having extra options on the menu is always a hit with customers, and adding salads will give options for groups that may include someone who is dieting or ate pizza the day before. “While a lot of consumers may buy pizza, somebody in the family will want the healthier options—either a healthier pizza topping or an alternative to round out the meal,” explains Cronert. “Customers will order salad if it’s displayed and merchandised right, and it’s a low level of entry for an operator. The ingredients are already there if you work with fresh pizza toppings; those are also great salad toppings and can be easily modified.”

JB Clark is a PMQ editorial intern.