How 5 operators are making salad bars spring to life

Dana Moran, Managing Editor

jasons deli salad bar

With spring officially underway, operators can start bringing the garden’s bounty to the salad bar. FoodService Director checked in with our Chefs’ Council members to see how diner preferences and seasonal produce are inspiring their latest salad offerings.

1. New foundations, familiar flavors

lubys salad bar

“We've learned that healthier options are best treated with flavor profiles that our guests are accustomed to tasting,” says Ryan McNulty, director of culinary development for Metz Culinary Management in Dallas, Pa. “So whole grains and ancient grains are dressed and garnished to the food preferences instead of flavors not traditionally served in specific regions. Allergen information is critical for all items served as well as gluten-free and vegan options.”

All salad stations operated by Metz follow these stipulations:

  • Menu cycle must reflect no less than 85% fresh foods.
  • All salads must be prepared in-house with no processed items.
  • Minimum of two lettuce blends available—no plain iceberg to be offered, except for wedge salad.
  • Composed salads offered daily, including one grain-based composed salad, one with housemade vinaigrette featuring fresh vegetables and one mayo-based with vegetable or animal protein.

2. Boosting non-meat protein options

salad bar toppings

“I feel like salad bars have changed tremendously over the years as the palate of patrons has grown,” says Dewey McMurrey, executive chef at Texas Tech University, which boasts several salad bar concepts on its Lubbock campus. “Alternatively, the science of how we grow food to improve flavor and color has helped this become easier.”

Expanding non-meat proteins like hummus; Greek yogurt; cottage cheeses; beans; blended seeds like sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, chia, hemp, almonds and pecans; quinoa; and chickpeas have “balanced the bar, so to speak,” McMurrey says. It also caters to the nutritional needs of Texas Tech’s vegetarian and vegan students.

3. Freshening up salad presentation

whole foods salad bar

“We’ve had a lot of evolution at our Dining at Microsoft Salad Bars over the past few years,” says Craig Tarrant, culinary director of dining for Compass Group at Microsoft in Redmond, Wash. That includes:

  • A focus on cohesive merchandising vessels and displays to create visual appeal.
  • Local labeling and clings, including calling out local farms as well as seasonal, locally purchased featured ingredients.
  • A hot toppers section on all salad bars.
  • In addition to the self-serve salad bar, Microsoft has several Forage stations, featuring tossed-to-order organic salads and carved protein toppers to-order.

4. The ever-changing salad bar at NC State

salad bar greens

“Our salad bar has really been very versatile for us,” says Bill Brizzolara, campus executive chef at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. “It has allowed us to plug in local and seasonal vegetables without having to go through the recipe testing and allergen analysis process.” Brizzolara says the bar also allows N.C. State to swap in different or trending ethnic flavors, from animal and vegetable proteins to legumes and dressings to pickled items. 

5. A place for pasta

pasta salad bar

At Davidson College in Davidson, N.C., executive chef Craig Mombert incorporates more traditional grains such as farro and red quinoa, but also uses rice noodles and pierogis for a different take on pasta salads. “The success of the salad bar is based on colors and textures,” he says. “If the colors stand out, people will be drawn to it; if it is all green and the same, it looks boring.”

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