The phrase “grab and go” evokes the speed with which society is moving, and salads are moving with it. Everyone knows Americans need to eat more healthfully, but pressure of too much to do and too little time in which to do it has driven many consumers to eat more pre-packaged foods, which can tend to be less healthy. But pre-packaged salads can provide both convenience and good nutrition.
At Geisinger Medical Center in Danville, Pa., Associate Vice President of Guest Service Bruce Thomas says grab and go has become extremely popular, accounting for about 15% or more of total sales, and salads are a big part of that. Chicken Caesar is the favorite, Thomas says, followed by Asian chicken and the regular chef’s salad.
Making it easy: Convenience is key, he notes. “That’s very important because we serve out of an older facility that is not sized appropriately for the volume we’re doing. Lines get backed up easily, which is difficult when people only have a 30-minute lunch. We have two coolers for grab-and-go items—salads, sandwiches and sushi. These are a huge portion of our business because more and more people eat in their offices these days than we’ve ever seen before.”
In addition to the main campus, Thomas’ department provides foodservice to six off-site locations, preparing grab-and-go items at the main location and transporting them to the satellites.
Customers are also increasingly health-conscious, he adds. “We try to have healthier selections and we will be increasing the number of those items. We plan to set a maximum calorie level and also a level for grams of fat in each item we sell. This will force us to rethink our menu items.”
At Indiana University, in Bloomington, Ind., Associate Director of Production and Procurement Ancil Drake estimates that pre-packaged salads account for 25% of salads sold. “We have them pre-packaged centrally and send them to kiosks, c-stores and food courts on campus,” says Drake. “They’re prepared fresh at the end of the third shift and have a two-day shelf life. We do five different ones: chicken Caesar, tossed, Caesar, chef and a fruit salad with a yogurt-based dip. We have fresh honeydew melon, cantaloupe, kiwi and grapes in the fruit salad.”
Also available to go are small macaroni and potato salads and coleslaw.
A healthy variety: Increasingly, customers are focusing on wellness and asking for healthier choices, says Chef Kristi Winegarner at Hallmark Cards’ Kansas City, Mo., headquarters. “We try to give them low-fat salads with less cheese and good proteins. We have 15 or 20 different salads and we tweak them to offer a lot of variety. If we have a particularly good buy on something or stuff left over, we’ll use it in salads.”
Christine Rankin, corporate services manager, says Hallmark does “a large grab-and-go business. Our staff is creative—they don’t just stick with the same salads.”
Winegarner tries to be seasonal and offer lighter, fresher options. “We do a low-fat cherry, fig and apple salad, and one with brown rice and shrimp. We try to use surimi, tuna and salmon in salads and we do a lot of dried fruits, nuts, grains and edamame.”
Hallmark employees, Rankin adds, also enjoy Southwestern chicken salad. “We also have a lot of salads with avocado, and our taco salad is hugely popular.”
The school foodservice program at St. Paul (Minn.) Public Schools, which serves 38,000 students, offers grab-and-go salads on its à la carte line at high schools as part of a reimbursable meal, says Project Manager Diane Wortz. The popular chicken Caesar is always available for lunch , along with a vegetarian chef’s salad, and there’s a rotating salad each month such as Thai peanut chicken salad.
Grab and go gives customers time savings, Wortz points out, especially in the high school where the option helps cut down on the other lines.
At Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, Foodservice Director of Dining Services Christine Schwartz offers grab-and-go salads in cash operations, offering a variety that includes chicken, turkey, Caesar and chicken salad. “Grab and go is very popular,” she says, “and the favorite is chicken salad. Fruit salad with yogurt is popular too.” Vegetarian items are gaining favor also, leading Bates to add a vegetarian station in its new facility, she adds.
Gaining in popularity: On the campus of Colorado State University, in Fort Collins, Colo., Executive Chef Cynthia Lategan sees growing interest in convenient grab-and-go salads. She’s meeting the demand with creative options such as a turkey, cranberry, apple and feta salad using both Granny Smith and Red Delicious apples. “We also do spinach with sun-dried tomato salad dressing and chicken Caesar, and we’re moving more than we used to.”
John Koutras, corporate executive chef for Long Island, N.Y.-based Whitsons Culinary Group, is working with distributors on a program called Greenleaf Cuisine, which was introduced last spring to procure local produce for salads as part of Whitsons’ Farm-to-Fork effort.
“We do spinoffs on tuna niçoise and chicken Caesar, and local produce enhances all of those,” Koutras says. “I think people will see the difference in taste. We’re also using heirloom and Jersey tomatoes in season. Grab and go is much quicker and simpler, all in one container and portioned right.”
Greenleaf was rolled out in schools last fall with local produce. The challenge, says Koutras, in offering variety is to present something familiar in a different way. “People are open to different dressings, but they like what they like—Caesar or chef’s salad.”
At the Topsham Public School MSAD 75 in Maine, School Foodservice Director Maurice St. Pierre sells à la carte prepared salads, mostly to the staff at the school, which has around 700 students. They’re gaining popularity, says St. Pierre, noting that favorites include the ubiquitous chicken Caesar as well as chef salads with proteins, vegetarian and specialty salads.
Catering to Sophistication
At one B&I location salads deliver a healthy, but upscale, option for customers.
The ever faster pace of life today makes grab and go prepared salads a growing part of foodservice business at Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft, a downtown New York City law firm.
Carlos Rivera, director of dining services for CulinArt at this account, launched a new 500-calorie club card promotion this year for National Nutrition Month, giving employees whose cards are punched six times a free item such as a composed grab-and-go salad.
The program meets customer desires for fresh, healthy and convenient take-away foods. “We started it last year with amazing reception,” says Rivera, noting that traditional and premium salads are also available. Upscale salad offerings include such items as sesame noodles with sliced London broil, Mandarin chicken salad or grilled salmon salad with mango salsa.
Successfully moving the salads requires neat, smart packaging, Rivera says. “They look very interesting, and the 500-calorie program is supported with nutritional information. To-go composed salads are a very important component of our business.” The prepared salads are featured in what Rivera calls “12 feet of spinning salad space,” a large case that displays the to-go items.
“There’s a challenge in offering quality fresh food to go,” Rivera says. “It can be a dangerous thing if not done properly. There are certain foods that sit well in a hot bain-marie but may not do as well in a refrigerated unit. Temperature is important.
“We meet with the chef once a week and visit our competitors,” he adds. “It’s important to understand what trends are hot and what works. My executive chef, sous chef and I also meet regularly to look at customer feedback.”
Customer satisfaction is extremely important, and Rivera likes to hear what his customers want, whether it be whole grains, tofu or vegan fare. “We want to hear from the vegans, the comfort-food lovers, everybody,” he says. The lawyers favor salads such as grilled chicken Caesar, spring salad with tuna, sesame and mandarin oranges and Thai salad.
“Our challenge is to have interesting foods that can move well. Once we get into full swing with spring, our customers will want to grab their salads and go outside and get some sun and fresh air."
The Spring Break Effect
As spring approaches, students watch their weight, and salads come back in vogue.
West Virginia University in Morgantown gets deep into “salad season” each year as the annual spring break approaches, when students switch from heavier menu options to lighter fare as they prepare to shed pounds. Executive Chef Jeff Capron, who’s been in campus dining for more than 20 years, makes sure he’s ready when demand surges, coming up with special grab-and-go salads made with young baby greens and sliced strawberries with a poppy seed dressing, along with the usual favorites, to tempt palates.
“Salads are all up to the imagination. Introducing new products and concepts is part of maintaining guest satisfaction. Our customers are looking for healthier grab-and-go choices, and we package our salads in clear containers. They’re easy to see and it gives them more appeal. We offer a choice of eight different dressings in convenient packets.
We started with three to-go outlets in 2004 and now have increased by four small little shops. Two are cash operated and two are on board plans.
The largest challenge is to keep coming up with a greater variety of salads that can be production friendly and still remain within my budgetary goals.
When I first came here, I brought my experience and expertise in running coffee shops with me, and since then, I’ve set up and consulted on five coffee shop concepts featuring grab-and-go dining selections. The salads are on a rotating basis with chicken Caesar and garden salad offered daily. We have specials from a list of 14 different salads. We also do small side salads for grab and go like pasta salad, cucumber salad and potato salad.
When we label them, we like to put designer-type labels on them with a glitzy ingredient listing. We try to put as many of the ingredients as possible in the name. For example, we have black bean, pepper and tomato salad. It’s helpful to everyone to do it that way—the customers know what’s in the salads and the people back in production making them know what has to go into them.
Presently we are working on converting all of our packaging to earth-friendly containers. To date, I have been able to convert about 90% of the items. Our next step will be to look at reducing our carbon footprint.
We have a good variety of salads. We began using frozen chicken strips and we season them with different rubs and seasonings. It keeps my inventory manageable. Back in 2004, we searched to create four core salads and we were doing a Buffalo spicy chicken that was very popular, but it was also very labor intensive with the breading and everything. So we decided to use a basic precut chicken strip. The Buffalo chicken is probably healthier now. We also do spicy chicken, Jamaican jerk chicken and grilled chicken.
We’ve noticed that after Christmas, the demand begins to ramp up for salads. You’d like to think it’s all about being healthier, but it’s probably because they want to look good in their bathing suits for spring break.
We’ll do around 230 entrée-type salads a day at our Brew ‘n Gold Café, and I also make 160 small salads. Our total daily head count is 1,400. We’ll sell about 175 chicken Caesar and around 75 vegetarian salads a day. Chicken Caesar is definitely the favorite. We used to make salads with mayonnaise—tuna, chicken, egg—and we’d do 75 a day. Last fall we ran a special with one of those and we did only 25 a day. The kids are becoming a lot savvier about what they’re putting in their stomachs. Now, I don’t think I could sell 25 a week. We make five vegetarian salads: garden, tofu garden, tofu and garden vegetable lo mein, Greek with feta cheese, and in the spring we mix with strawberries. The vegetarian tofu salad is popular. We add broccoli florets, cauliflower and shredded carrots.
Customers are looking for those healthier choices. We switched to Newman’s Own dressings.
For breakfast, we’ll offer grab-and-go fruit salads in little side containers with sausage biscuits. They’re just cut fruit, and at lunch we’ll convert to a 32-ounce salad with yogurt.”