Salad Days

Salad Days

As many strive to eat light and healthy meals in summer’s sunshine, more restaurant patrons are finding a fresh addition to salads: strawberries, watermelon, raspberries and other fruits.

Chefs are pairing slices of seasonal fruits with baby greens, a mix of vegetables and often a fruit-infused vinaigrette dressing, and these pairings are hitting the sweet spot with health-conscious diners who are looking for a flavorful meal with a healthful halo.

“Fruit has continued to rise in people’s minds as a wonderful add,” says Marley Hodgson, co-founder of Mad Greens, a Denver-based salad concept with eight units. “We use a lot of apples, pears and oranges, and we continue to add fruit seasonally. Last summer, strawberries were a huge hit, and we’re bringing them back this year.”

One of Mad Greens’ most popular salads is its Don Quixote, which blends baby greens with mango, avocado, roasted corn and Jack cheese and is topped with a creamy ginger dressing.

“It’s been a huge hit,” Hodgson says.

Three other Mad Greens chef-designed salads also feature fruit. One such salad is the Van Gogh, made with spinach, carrots, vine-ripened tomatoes, couscous with currants and dried apricots and is dressed with a lemon-curry vinaigrette.

“We’re constantly looking for new and interesting combinations,” Hodgson says. “Fruit is definitely something more and more people are adding to their diets and in more ways than just having an apple or eating an orange.”

According to Mintel Menu Insights, the use of fruit in salads has jumped 40 percent from January 2006 to December 2007. The Chicago company tracks trends at 580 restaurants ranging from fast-food outlets to fine-dining establishments.

While fruit is still somewhat foreign in a salad for some consumers, its use is beginning to hit the mass market, says Maria Caranfa, director of Menu Insights.

“Two years ago we started seeing apples and dried cranberries becoming really popular in salads,” she says. “From there, we’ve seen lot of other fruit being accepted.”

Adding fruits to salads is an excellent way for restaurants to increase their healthful options, adds Caranfa, who is a registered dietician.

“A lot of consumers say they want healthier options, but when they come to a menu, they might only find one healthy salad and seven indulgent ones,” she says. “Fruit can really pump up the flavor and the health quotient and help balance the indulgence.”

Menus reflect warm weather fare

Au Bon Pain [3] is adding five salads this summer, including the Pear and Gorgonzola salad, says Ed Frechette, senior vice president of the 226-unit, Boston-based chain.

“Our guests welcome the introduction of interesting fruits in their salads,” he says. “Who wants a boring lettuce salad? We have gotten a great response to [our salads with fruit] and will look to continue to include fruits in the future.”

The Pear and Gorgonzola salad was first created a few years ago.

“It did well for us then, so we wanted to bring it back,” Frechette says.

The company’s Riviera and Turkey Sonoma salads, which feature cranberries and grapes, as well as Mandarin oranges, respectively, are also popular.

He says that the salads, “have done better in the warmer months when people are looking for lighter salads.”

What’s new

In Atlanta, Justin Smolev, founder of one of the newest salad-only restaurant concepts, the not-yet-one-year-old Dressed, uses fruit in many of the special salads he makes each week. Recently Smolev teamed strawberries with grilled shrimp, avocado, baby spinach, Belgian endive, cucumbers and lemon-poppy seed dressing.

“One special I keep going back to because it sells so well is a salad with chicken, fried leeks, strawberries, goat cheese and sunflower seeds on a mesclun mix with a white balsamic vinaigrette,” Smolev says. “It’s a nice, light and really tasty salad that people really love, especially women.”

At Lola’s in Seattle the summer menu means a return of the pickled pepper, peaches and pastirma salad, which has become a signature summer offering of the four-year-old Greek-inspired Tom Douglas Restaurant.

“Seattle’s summers are short and often cool, so we get excited about summer fruit season,” says Shelley Lance, quality control manager for Tom Douglas Restaurants and co-author of Douglas’ cookbooks and articles. “In general, anything with peaches or cherries or berries in particular will sell like crazy.”

Use of fruit in salads on the riseNumber of menu items containing each fruitSOURCE: MINTEL MENU INSIGHTS
IngredientsQ1 2006Q4 2007
Mandarin Orange6583

Lola’s signature summer salad combines pickled green bell peppers, peaches and pastirma, which is a Turkish-style spiced, air-dried beef that the restaurant makes itself. The salad is served on a bed of arugula and dressed with red-wine vinaigrette.

“The nice thing about this salad is the contrast of the pickled peppers; the sweet, fresh, ripe peaches; and the salty, spicy meat,” Lance says.

Columbus, Ohio-based Max and Erma’s Restaurants Inc., with 80 restaurants and 27 franchises, wanted a lighter, fresher and more flavorful salad and added a second fruit-focused offering two years ago.

The Shrimp Stack Salad—a salad made with shrimp, baby greens, spinach, crunchy noodles, shredded carrot and diced fresh pineapple tossed in an Asian sweet-and-sour vinaigrette, which is then stacked up on a fresh slice of pineapple—has become a crowd-pleaser, reports Stacy McPhillips, director of marketing, research and communications.

“Shrimp Stack salads are considered no-guilt items,” she adds. “The response to the shrimp salad has been great. People really like the presentation on the pineapple.”

Fruit challenge: too ripe or just ripe enough

Incorporating fruit as an ingredient in salads is easy. Operators keep a close watch on how ripe the fruit is and give citrus baths to apples and pears to make sure the fruit doesn’t brown over the course of a day.

“Watermelon is pretty stable,” says Tom Douglas’ Lance. “But many other fruits are more perishable.” In just a few days, strawberries go from fragrant and ripe and spoiled and moldy, she adds, so they need to be used quickly.

Cooks need to taste and make sure the fruits they are using are fully ripe, she adds.

“You never want to put an unripe peach or an unripe melon on the plate or a tasteless, watery berry,” Lance says.

If a fruit isn’t at its peak, the restaurant group changes the menu—every day if necessary.

“If you don’t have ripe peaches, take the peach salad off the menu or replace peach with another fruit and rewrite the menu description,” Lance says.

Overall, handling fruits for salads is pretty simple and the rewards can be great.

“We see fruit as a wonderful summer perk that we look forward to every year,” Lance says.