The crop report

So far, the 2005-2006 growing season has been pretty favorable for salad greens. “The weather was phenomenal in the desert, where much of the winter produce is grown and the quality is excellent, with very little spoilage,” reports Teri Trost, sales manager of national accounts for Earthbound Farms. Prices for pre-cut lettuces and other greens peaked toward the end of 2005, but Trost expects them to decrease this spring and continue a downward spiral in the next three to five years.

Central California, the other major growing area, experienced more rainfall and colder weather than normal in early 2006. “The cold may delay the harvest slightly but shouldn’t have a huge effect on prices,” says David Gombas, VP of technical services for the International Fresh-Cut Produce Association. “And the jury is still out on the impact of the wet weather. Rain has both benefits and drawbacks when it comes to lettuces.”

Tomatoes, another salad staple, are running above 2005 levels. Imports from Mexico and an ample Florida crop are replenishing the supply and prices are starting to drop. Smaller vine-ripened grape tomatoes are increasingly taking the place of larger tomatoes in restaurant salads. According to figures provided by Fresh From Mexico, a produce trade association, imports of this variety (in pounds) have increased by over 1,500 percent from 2001 to 2005 and now account for 5 percent of the tomato supply in the United States. The grape tomato bounty is stabilizing prices.

Salad days. Knowing what sells can help you figure out what to buy. These are the top salad trends showing up on the menu.

  • Blends of greens. Suppliers are packaging salad-ready mixes of three or more types of lettuce and/or other salad greens, making it convenient for operators to add value and variety to the salad bowl.
  • Upscale ingredients. Baby greens and microgreens, fresh herbs and unusual fruits and vegetables are making their way into salads on all types of menus—from fast casual to fine-dining.
  • Global flavors. Greens and vegetables with more exotic, complex flavors and origins are finding their way into American restaurant salads. Many of these are grown from indigenous Asian and Latin seeds now planted in California and Arizona.
  • Seasonal produce year round. Agriculturally advanced, top quality salad ingredients from Mexico follow strictly monitored field-to-table practices and are more widely available to the foodservice industry.
  • New seeds and new forms. Lettuces with improved shelf life, better color and more flavor are being developed by produce companies and agricultural researchers.
  • Center-of-the-plate applications. Entrée salads continue to grow in popularity, as customers seek what they perceive as healthier options. Chicken is still the most prevalent protein in the mix, but turkey, seafood, pork, beef and other meats are also making their mark.
  • More organic salad greens destined for restaurants. The entry of a major broadline organic distributor and a greater number of farmers converting their crops to organic are fueling this growth. Earthbound Farms, the largest supplier of organic pre-cut salad greens, claims that 40 percent of its total sales are now in foodservice and it costs an operator only pennies more to menu an organic salad—an added value for which consumers seem willing to pay.
  • Specialty cheeses add interest. While blue and Parmesan have long been paired with salads, other types of cheese are now making a statement. Shaved asiago, creamy goat cheese and smoked mozzarella or provolone are now gracing mainstream salads, while white-tablecloth restaurants are showing off rare artisan and farmstead cheeses in their salad course.
  • Presentation sells. Artfully composed and stacked salads show off ingredients of contrasting colors and textures.
  • Imaginative garnishes. Chefs are topping green salads with everything from crunchy nuts and seeds to dried fruits and bits of house-cured fish and meat.

Restaurant salad sales climb. A survey conducted by The Produce Marketing Association in 2004 shows that foodservice produce sales increased 11.2 percent between 1998 and 2005, with much of that fresh produce ending up in salads. The percent of operators reporting that more customers were buying salads is indicated by category:

Item Family dining, Casual dining, Fine dining

Entrée salads: 45%, 52%, 39%

Side salads: 34%, 37%, 24%

Statistics from MenuTrends DIRECT collected by Datassential, a Chicago-based market research company, reveal that salads are taking up more real estate on chain menus. Salads as a percentage of total menu items has gone up in almost all segments between 2004 and 2005:

Small Chains (3-100 units), QSR, Midscale Casual

% of total in 2004: 6.1%, 6.6%, 7.6%

% of total in 2005: 6.7%, 6.7%, 8.2%

Larger Chains (101+ units)

% of total in 2004: 6.3%, 5.1%, 9.5%

% of total in 2005: 7.3%, 5.2%, 9.0%

Even so, there is plenty of untapped opportunity to put more fresh produce on menus—in salads and elsewhere. The PMA discovered that only 50 percent of consumers eat fresh fruits and vegetables away from home once every two weeks, compared to 98 percent who will include produce in at-home meals.

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