Use the power of sensational signature salads to set your pizzeria apart from the competition.

Thankfully, the perception of pizzeria salads—think wilting iceberg lettuce, canned black olives and a lone cold tomato wedge—is changing. Enterprising operators have endeavored to go above and beyond typical, uninspired selections, and salads at pizzerias can now be as sophisticated as those in upscale eateries. They can even garner major customer and media attention: New Orleans-based Reginelli’s Pizzeria (reginellis.com), with 10 locations in Louisiana and Texas, was selected by The Times-Picayune as the Big Easy’s best restaurant to get a salad, and the pizzeria has become known for them. “Our salads are mentioned in a lot of reviews and online postings,” says owner Darryl Reginelli. “It makes us more than just a pizzeria.”

If you’re looking to become known in your community as “more than just a pizzeria,” take these top tips from operators to jazz up your salad menu—and keep customers coming back for more.

Creating Signature Salads

At Aurelio’s Pizza (aureliospizza.com), based in Homewood, Illinois, two salads account for more than 80% of the chain’s overall salad sales. Though the company has added more 
options to appeal to a wider range of customers, the Dinner Salad and the Aurelio’s Italian Antipasto Salad—both on the menu when the pizzeria opened in 1959—remain customer favorites. In two sizes for sharing (serving two and four people), the salads are a hit with dine-in guests. “It’s a group salad, just like pizza is a group food—people can order a pizza and salad and get a whole meal,” says Kirk Mauriello, director of franchising for Aurelio’s. “We stay traditional, but salads are definitely our second-biggest area of sales.”

Quality also trumps quantity at Seattle-based Pagliacci Pizza (pagliacci.com), which has more than 20 locations in Washington. Pagliacci offers only three salads on its menu, but they have caught on with customers—especially the Pagliaccio Salad, on the menu from day one and with a unique mix of ingredients (including kasseri cheese and garbanzo beans). The Pesto Pasta Salad, meanwhile, gives customers an alternative to a traditional greens-based salad, and the Caesar Salad has proved very popular with guests for the past decade. The pizzeria also offers a daily salad—many of which have a loyal following. “People know us for our salads; we have big fans of them,” says Shelley McNulty, marketing director for Pagliacci. “Customers know our daily salad schedule and come in on that day just to order them.”

Experimenting with Ingredients

When you’re looking to go a step above with your salad menu, start with the basics: the greens. At ZAZA Fine Salad & Wood Oven Pizza Company (zazapizzaandsalad.com), with two locations in Conway and Little Rock, Arkansas, owner and chef Scott McGehee shuns iceberg altogether in favor of field greens, romaine and spinach. Carlos Harrington, executive chef at Bounce Sporting Club (bounceny.com) in New York, recommends experimenting with watercress, endive, baby gem, radicchio, and even herbs such as parsley, basil and marjoram. To grab patrons’ interest, he also advises stocking different types of nuts (almonds, walnuts and pine nuts); both dried and fresh fruit (apples, mandarins, grapes, cranberries and raspberries); and cheeses such as feta, Gorgonzola, Parmesan, fresh mozzarella and cheddar. “Salads should include different textures, colors and flavors; a contrast of colors and textures really enhances all senses,” says Harrington. “And, of course, adding a special touch such as homemade croutons really makes a difference.”

Reginelli laments that many operators make the mistake of creating salads that are simply different versions of their pizzas. “We try to mix it up so it’s not apparent we’re just using the same toppings we’d put on a pizza,” he explains. “Some items are used specifically on salads to make them more unique.” The company also thinks outside the bowl: Recently, Reginelli’s introduced a salad in which a crusty flatbread acts as a plate to hold the ingredients (added because so many customers asked for bread with their salads). He also forgoes iceberg, instead using romaine and mixed baby greens (including Swiss chard, baby arugula, frisée and bok choy). “These are softer lettuces, and we’re able to get consistent-quality product throughout the year,” says Reginelli, who also stresses fresh-made, unique dressings to make salads stand out (they’re not difficult to make and drastically improve the overall salad presentation and flavor).

McGehee agrees that homemade dressings and top-quality ingredients are a must. To get your creative juices flowing, he advocates experimenting with tried-and-true flavor combinations as well as ethnic approaches—for example, Latin- or Asian-inspired salads. Also, be sure to fight boredom among regulars: At ZAZA, along with 12 “predesigned” salads on the menu (which include dressing recommendations), customers can create their own salads—toppings include black beans, chickpeas, capers and mango, to name a few—or select the salad of the month.

Finally, offer variety on your salad menu—not just through ingredients, but with a good overall mix of salad types. Though Aurelio’s finds great success with its two original salads, it has branched out to accommodate changing tastes, customer requests, and locations in states far-flung from its Illinois headquarters. For markets such as Florida, where customers enjoy lighter foods, the company added a citrus salad with candied pecans, dried cranberries and mandarin oranges; to meet demands for a heartier option, Aurelio’s offers a Cobb Salad with meats, cheeses and egg; and for those who like more intense flavors, the Buffalo Chicken Salad offers a kick with spicy chicken and pungent blue cheese dressing. “Look at your competition, but put your own twist on things,” Mauriello advises.

“Salads provide a great opportunity to increase gross volume, and with profits similar to pizza, you want to get the word out about them.”
—Scott McGehee,ZAZA Fine Salad & Wood Oven Pizza Company

Seattle-based Pagliacci Pizza offers only three salads on its menu, but they're doozies, including the Pagliaccio, featuring garbanzo beans, diced red peppers, kasseri cheese, salami and red onions.

Going Local

Local ingredients are a plus in any operation—and, in salads, they can also be a way to trim costs, says McGehee. Each month, ZAZA features a salad made with produce from a local farmer, and he predicts that the local-ingredient trend will only grow. “Local is becoming so critically important as people become more health-conscious and engaged with what goes into their bodies,” he says. “Supporting smaller farms is really important to us, and you can get amazing local produce for less money. It may take a little effort, but when it comes to local ingredients, you can get on the bandwagon now or get left behind.”

Harrington notes that using local organic ingredients helps improve salads’ flavor while enhancing a restaurant’s uniqueness and sparking chef creativity. “Given the recent popularity of healthy eating, people are really gravitating toward the farm-to-table approach—and fresher, tastier ingredients lead to a better-tasting salad,” he explains. “Using local ingredients is very important. The less travel time for produce, the higher the product’s quality will be, and supporting local sustainable farms is a great way to steer away from mass-producing companies that use pesticides and chemicals, which ultimately creates a less nutritional product.”

Reaching the Masses

McGehee uses a “full complement” of social media—
including Twitter and Facebook—to spread the word about his salads, but he also goes the “old-fashioned” route by placing a large chalkboard at the beginning of his salad line to show off a picture and the ingredients in one of his specialty salads. A soup-and-salad combo for lunch is also a popular bundled option at his operation. “Salads provide a great opportunity to increase gross volume, and with profits similar to pizza, you want to get the word out about them,” McGehee says.

In Pagliacci’s pizzerias, a display of a freshly tossed salad in the front of the stores helps instigate sales, and in locations that have salad bars, customers are asked if they’d like a salad before their pizza when they’re greeted at the door. For delivery service, the company also offers the occasional upgrade, such as a large salad for the price of a small. “We encourage locations to show off salads during the lunch rush to increase sales, but the salad display must be kept fresh and appealing—no wilting lettuce!” McNulty notes. “We also encourage employee interaction, talking about and engaging customers about our salads.”

Mauriello suggests that operators make salads prominent on the menu and include pictures to entice customers to try them. Highlight salads that are considered a house specialty, and use social media and email marketing to remind current customers that you offer mouthwatering salads as well as pizza. Bundling can also encourage people to sample: At its main location in Homewood, Aurelio’s offers a soup, salad and pizza or sandwich during weekday lunches. “It’s actually been a trend for people to skip pizza at lunch and just order a sandwich and salad,” says Mauriello. “Sometimes we’ll do promotions—buy a pizza and get a salad free—but social media has been the biggest help; when you show customers a picture, you hit them right away.”

Minding Your Food Costs

Salads can be a higher-cost item due to the amount of fresh product needed and the fluctuation of the ingredients’ prices through natural events such as drought or frost. However, Mauriello tries to keep food costs at less than 25% for salads and is in the process of building recipes (with exact weights and measures for ingredients) into a new POS system to eliminate waste, keep food costs down and ensure consistency. “Understanding what items are already in your restaurant, and how to use them, also helps with waste,” he notes.

Constant vigilance is a plus, too: When staff noticed that many salads were coming back to the kitchen with pepperoncini still on the plate, the restaurant cut back on portions of the relatively expensive ingredient.
Salad Success

Finally, presentation is everything, so McGehee trains his ZAZA employees to constantly mind the salad ingredients, pick out any wilting or unattractive bits and keep everything pristine. “It takes only one salad with wilted greens to make that customer decide to never order another salad from you, so you have to pay attention to details,” McGehee says. “Practice aggressive training to build the habits of your staff.”

Ultimately, the success of salads, like any menu item, comes down to the right recipe: crafting a standout menu, listening to what your customers want and marketing accordingly. By rounding out your offerings with salads that soar, you’ll attract more business and add to your bottom line. “Pizza is one of the most popular food segments in the country, but for many it’s an indulgence,” McGehee says. “With a comprehensive and complementary selection, salads are a perfect addition—not only do they pair very well with pizza, but they’re great as an alternative entrée.”

Tracy Morin is PMQ's senior copy editor.