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Building a better salad bar

Salad bars offer variety, excitement and healthy choices for less.

There’s perhaps no easier way to incorporate a large variety of local, seasonal and healthy choices on your menu than with a salad bar. Just ask Chuck Hatfield, director of product development for Sodexo’s Corporate Services Division—his salad bar was ranked by consumers as their favorite café destination. That distinction is no surprise when you consider the plethora of ingredients found on the bar: asparagus, grilled artichokes, heirloom tomatoes, roasted corn and root vegetables, and a variety of grains like farro and quinoa are just a few of the offerings available each day.

Scott Bruhn, executive chef at Iowa State University, in Ames, can relate. He runs four salad bars, each with a standard set of dozens of ingredients. As a rule of thumb, Bruhn recommends 50% veggies and 50% protein and other items like cheese, meat and nuts. “We are committed to offering a large selection because our students need variety in their diets and the ability to be creative,” Bruhn explains. 

Other operators agree. Laurence Shiner, executive chef for Sodexo Campus Services at Western Illinois University’s Corbin-Olson Dining Center, in Macomb, offers 40-plus fresh ingredients on his salad bar, in addition to grilled proteins like Cajun shrimp and steak. Peter Testory, assistant director of support and culinary operations at Colorado State University, in Fort Collins, rotates in as many local products as he can on his salad bar, while John S. Pelton, foodservice director and executive chef at River Region Medical Center, in Mississippi, serves housemade ranch dressing on his bar alongside low-fat premade options. And Drew Latham, chef at Texas Tech’s The Commons, in Lubbock, has upped the salad bar ante with a self-serve guacamole bar complete with red and green salsa, roasted corn salsa, pico de gallo, limes, cilantro and onions.

Salad bars also are useful in schools. “Empowering students with choice helped with acceptance of new vegetables, decreased food waste and has allowed us to easily meet the new lunch guidelines regarding vegetable variety,” adds Jessica Shelly, food service director for Cincinnati Public Schools.

Here are some more tips to create a successful salad bar:

  • Lots of fresh vegetables (including several greens) and fruit (including dried options)
  • An assortment of cheese, including cottage cheese
  • A variety of protein, including chopped eggs, tofu and beans
  • An array of nuts and seeds
  • Plenty of salad dressings, plus extra-virgin olive oil, vinegars and lemon juice
  • Specialty items: olives, precooked grains, ethnic ingredients, artichokes, grilled meats.

Whatever you decide to include, remember the best salad bars are made from fresh, seasonal and local ingredients in a variety of contrasting colors, textures and flavors, Hatfield says. Other secrets to success: To maintain a vegetable’s color, try blanching, says Latham, who blanches hardy green vegetables like broccoli or asparagus. And prep everything ahead of time. “As long as preps are in place, the salad bar will almost run itself.” Shelly agrees: “We purchase many of our fresh produce items prewashed and precut for food safety, product quality and labor efficiencies.”

But always ensure the area is clean and well maintained, Bruhn adds. “Having extra staff there at all times to replenish and clean is just as important—a dirty salad bar can turn people off from eating at your establishment.”

Food cost

“A salad bar can be challenging,” warns Bruhn, citing high-cost proteins and waste as key issues. “We use small containers to present the food, ensuring flow of product and quick turnover, and we don’t store much cut product at one time, which does cause our employees to prep more often, but it retains freshness.”

Pricing by weight can often remedy high costs as well. “Salad bars are high profit for us because most people eat with their eyes and are not afraid to fill up the mixing bowl, [plus the labor is fairly minimal],” Latham says.
In Cincinnati, “While the salad bar is not intended to be a profit-maker, it has indirectly increased our participation in our lunch programs,” Shelly adds. 


What’s Hot:

  • Local and seasonal ingredients
  • Healthy, nutrient-dense items like kale and vegetarian proteins
  • Housemade soups alongside the salad bar
  • Ancient grains like farro and quinoa
  • Hummus, especially in fun flavors like red pepper 
  • Unexpected vegetables, like Brussels sprouts and hearts of palm
  • Fresh-cut fruit
  • Asian and Latin ingredients, like black beans, roasted corn, jalapeño and chipotle peppers, soba noodles, cabbage and toasted sesame dressing
  • Fresh herbs
  • Avocados

What’s Not:

  • Canned vegetables
  • High-sodium salad dressings
  • Highly processed items like meats and salad dressings (make it in house)
  • Mayonnaise-based salads like potato and pasta salad and coleslaw
  • Gelatin salads

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