Setting the (Salad) Bar High For Foodservice-At-Retail Success — Salad Bars Offer New Opportunity For Produce

Setting the (Salad) Bar High For Foodservice-At-Retail Success

by Rick Stein, Vice President, Fresh Foods, Food Marketing Institute

October 2019 – It’s not really a toss-up: the salad bar, and all of its ready-to-toss ingredients, is a winner for foodservice-at-retail.

Like many people, I travel a lot for business. In addition to seeing a great deal of prepared foods areas as part of my store visits, I am a regular patron of salad bars during my trips. It’s a way for me to eat healthy on the road and customize my salad. Which, by the way, is almost always crunchy and usually has some green and red peppers, onions, cucumbers, radishes, large croutons mixed with crumbled blue cheese and balsamic vinegar dressing.

Everyone has their own perfect salad, of course, with favorite ingredients that can be rotated on a whim or are a “must” every time they belly up to the salad bar. That’s the beauty of the concept, and why salad bars are an integral part of foodservice-at-retail programs. They are the ultimate DIY, in that all of the elements are already prepared and ready to be personalized.

Physically, the salad bar is both a destination and anchor in the prepared foods area. On another level, salads help meet consumer demand for a greater diversity of foodservice offerings. The salad bar, teeming with an array of ingredients, represents a place with a wide variety of produce items to be added to a shopper’s mix.

For one thing, retailers can add produce items grown locally and/or in season. We know from the 2019 Power of Produce report that more than half of shoppers are looking for an expanded local or seasonal assortment of produce.

In addition, a salad bar is a way to introduce new or unusual types of produce that are trending in culinary circles. Jackfruit, which became a big thing in foodie world, can add some color, zest and interest to a salad. The same might be said about trending items such as Swiss Chard or even kelp. Shoppers can try new things at the salad bar in the quantities of their choosing.

We know shoppers crave new ingredients: according to the new 2019 Power of Foodservice at Retail report from FMI, an overwhelming 88% of shoppers want to see more new items and flavors in retail foodservice. While 31% want to see a rotation of flavors and items on a monthly basis, a good 28% want even greater levels of innovation and would be interested in items rotated on a weekly or possibly daily basis. Today’s marinated artichokes can be tomorrow’s grilled asparagus, and tomorrow’s croutons can be Friday’s Asiago crisps.

As part of foodservice-at-retail programs that also include hot food bars and grab-and-go deli items, salad bars have helped drive the overall success of deli-prepared areas, which are closing in at $13 billion in annual sales, according to the analysis. The report confirms salad bars comprise more than a third (33.7 percent) of total prepared food sales, followed by sandwiches (21.4%), sushi, (10.4%), appetizers (6.3%) soup (5.1%) and complete meals (4.7 percent).

While it’s a bit of “build it and they will come,” the salad bar is more than a station for piling ingredients in a container. Grocery stores can deliver convenience — and connect with customers — beyond the easy-to-make salad by creating separate and speedy checkout areas for items in the deli-prepared/foodservice-at-retail section. While it isn’t as personalized, premade salads, such as basic chopped, Caesar or garden varieties, can be offered and ordered online. These prepackaged salads, created by the retailer or available from produce brands, are more of a complementary solution than a competitive item, at a time when grab-and-go, ready-to-eat foods are of interest to 68 percent of today’s shoppers.

Finally, as retailers know well, talking to customers is an integral point of differentiation and provides key insights for ways to raise the bar on assortment, merchandising and service. That’s true for the salad bar, too.

When I’m filling up at the salad bar during my business travels, I often strike up conversations with fellow shoppers, asking them in a causal way what they like about this particular shopping and eating experience. Their answers are almost always about taste, convenience and variety, illustrating the point that diverse selection of flavorful ingredients that can be paired in a unique and custom way is a strategy for success at salad bars and, for that matter, the whole deli-prepared area of a store.

For more information, visit or follow Rick on Twitter @Ricks_FreshFood

Rick Stein is vice president, fresh foods, for the Food Marketing Institute (FMI). Follow him @Ricks_FreshFood. Visit www.,


Salad Bars Offer New Opportunity For Produce

by Jim Prevor, Editor-in-Chief, Produce Business

The salad bar is a perplexing thing. First of all, it is rarely a produce item. Some stores make it a separate department, but most have it as part of the deli. Typically, this is driven by a sense that produce clerks, often selected because they can handle heavy cases, don’t have the finesse required to staff a salad bar. Out in the restaurant world, salad bars have been disappearing for years. There was a moment when Wendy’s had them in every restaurant. Steakhouses and pizza places all had them. Now they are diminished.

Even when salad bars are given away for free, as to many K-12 schools, they often don’t last long. Tremendous labor and product costs, concerns over food safety, and, now, food waste and even fear of the flu being transmitted have led to salad bars being removed in cities such as Boston.

It may be true that “salad bars” comprise 33.7% of total prepared food sales in supermarkets, but that number has to represent a lot more than produce items. From tuna fish and hard-boiled eggs to full blown soup sections, olive and antipasto bars, wing bars … all this and more sometimes get mixed up in these numbers.

Done well, though, the decline of salad bars can actually be a plus for the produce industry. Rafi Taherian, associate vice president of Yale Hospitality, found even super bright college students often select items from a salad bar in such a way they turn themselves off to salads. It turns out composing a salad is really not work for amateurs. A perfectly composed Greek salad, for example, balances color, textures and flavors. In abstract, one might not select Feta cheese, but, in the right context Feta adds a salty note that balances the dish. One might love raw cruciferous vegetables, but, eaten alone, one might also get a stomachache.

Yale removed its salad bars and replaced them with salads composed by professional chefs. Sales went up as satisfaction increased.

The deli and its prepared foods and foodservice components are now an important sales opportunity for produce suppliers. It was not long ago the preferred way for deli departments to “procure” produce was to wait for the night shift and then send the deli clerk into the produce cooler to steal whatever was needed.

Now that method has severe limitations. First, supermarket delis have large foodservice operations, so they use much more produce. Second, the sizes of consumer packages aren’t desirable for full blown foodservice operations. They need to order special foodservice-size packages. Third, there are many items used in deli/foodservice that aren’t even sold to consumers — say individual Romaine leaves for sandwich programs.

Produce shippers that are not conscious of how much produce is being sold direct to the deli/prepared foods department by companies, such as Sysco, are missing an opportunity.

The general growth of prepared foods and retail foodservice operations speaks to the many changes in society. More women working, fewer people cooking, the transformation of cooking into something of a hobby, with a focus on celebrity chefs, increased affluence allowing people to pay for prepared foods… all this has led to a buildup on the retail/foodservice side.

There has also been a change at retail with many traditional grocery items being purchased online, in warehouse clubs or supercenters or via discounters — this all leads to a greater focus at retail on prepared foods and the retail/foodservice effort. And this creates an opportunity for sampling. Back in the heyday of the salad bar, Dick Spezzano, then vice president of produce at Vons, advised the pistachio industry to find a way to get pistachios on the salad bars at Sizzler steakhouse. He surmised this would be a great sampling program — and he was right.

Today, the sampling challenge is more complex. Leaving items out on a salad bar for consumers to discover themselves is an increasingly limited opportunity. But the booming prepared foods area remains a challenge to the produce industry — a challenge to find a way to integrate produce in new dishes and meal offerings.

Today’s produce department is a font of innovation, with countless new products vying for limited space.

It would behoove some of the producers of the new fresh-cut and proprietary items to pour effort into not only their retail pack but into finding ways to get these items integrated into today’s growing retail foodservice arena.

Getting these items integrated into food offerings curated by expert chefs will not only get consumers to sample these items but to do so in such a way that they will really like them. They will buy them in the deli and in the produce department, but this approach requires an integrated-sales approach few produce vendors are able to execute. But, now is the time to make such things happen.