Custom-salad chains go west as new concepts sprout in California market

Custom-salad chains go west as new concepts sprout in California market

LOS ANGELES —As East Coast-based build-your-own-salad brands race to conquer Western markets, chefs here have begun redefining the category with their own upscale versions of the concept.

The idea of custom-made salads, from fast-casual operations whose guests choose ingredients that are tossed to order to create gourmet entrées, has flourished in the East, and at least two brands have come to California in a battle for its salad-loving consumers. —As East Coast-based build-your-own-salad brands race to conquer Western markets, chefs here have begun redefining the category with their own upscale versions of the concept.

Meanwhile, California chefs have been establishing their own versions of the concept, aiming to take it up a notch. —As East Coast-based build-your-own-salad brands race to conquer Western markets, chefs here have begun redefining the category with their own upscale versions of the concept.

Category leader Saladworks [3], the 91-unit franchise brand based in Conshohocken, Pa., is scheduled to open its first California location this month in Sacramento and has 10 planned for the Golden State within the next five years. —As East Coast-based build-your-own-salad brands race to conquer Western markets, chefs here have begun redefining the category with their own upscale versions of the concept.

Margate, Fla.-based Salad Creations, with 47 franchised units open and plans for a near doubling of the chain by year-end, has two units open in Southern California and agreements with four area developers that envision up to 200 statewide over the next 10 years. —As East Coast-based build-your-own-salad brands race to conquer Western markets, chefs here have begun redefining the category with their own upscale versions of the concept.

For their part, such California-bred specialists as Mixt Greens, Tender Greens and Greenleaf Gourmet Chopshop are borrowing a page from fine dining’s playbook by using seasonal, local and organic ingredients and featuring such items as white-truffle potatoes and coriander-crusted ahi tuna. Many practitioners are positioning their salad-focused eateries as eco-conscious, with biodegradable packaging and energy-efficient, environmentally friendly buildings. —As East Coast-based build-your-own-salad brands race to conquer Western markets, chefs here have begun redefining the category with their own upscale versions of the concept.

West Coast pioneer Mixt Greens, based in San Francisco, leads the pack with three units and planned expansion throughout California. In Los Angeles, brands such as Tender Greens, The Point and the new Greenleaf Gourmet Chopshop also aim to capture their piece of the greens-eating niche audience. —As East Coast-based build-your-own-salad brands race to conquer Western markets, chefs here have begun redefining the category with their own upscale versions of the concept.

“We really wanted to bring fine dining to fast-casual,” said Andrew Swallow, co-founder and partner of Mixt Greens, who launched it with his sister Leslie Swallow and her husband, David Silverglide. —As East Coast-based build-your-own-salad brands race to conquer Western markets, chefs here have begun redefining the category with their own upscale versions of the concept.

Their first unit opened in April 2006. Andrew Swallow, whose fine-dining résumé includes stints at New York’s Gramercy Tavern [4] and the restaurant Gary Danko [5] in San Francisco, has applied the complexity of a full-service operation to Mixt Greens. All its produce, which is organic and from local sources, arrives daily each morning, and everything is prepared in each unit, from the house-smoked turkey to the roasted baby yellow beets. —As East Coast-based build-your-own-salad brands race to conquer Western markets, chefs here have begun redefining the category with their own upscale versions of the concept.

“We wanted to make it a culinary show,” Silverglide said. “Salads are made like they are in a full-service restaurant, but we put that in front of the customer.” —As East Coast-based build-your-own-salad brands race to conquer Western markets, chefs here have begun redefining the category with their own upscale versions of the concept.

The core of the menu allows guests to design their own salads, at a starting price of $6.95, from among several greens. Various categories of toppings add to the price, such as the 50-cent “staples” red bell pepper, cucumber and carrots; $1 “specialties” such as soba noodles, marinated tofu and mango; and $2 “premiums” of Spanish white anchovies or pine nuts. Various proteins, such as grilled prime flatiron steak, herb-marinated grilled chicken or seared ahi tuna, add various additional costs. —As East Coast-based build-your-own-salad brands race to conquer Western markets, chefs here have begun redefining the category with their own upscale versions of the concept.

Selections of featured salads change four times annually with the seasons. In winter, a salad like “The Porky,” $10.95, might include spice-crusted pork tenderloin with roasted butternut squash, apple-wood-smoked bacon, Sonoma apples, and candied walnuts with a champagne vinaigrette and port-wine drizzle. This spring, a featured salad is “The Grove,” an $8.45 combination of butter lettuce, seasonal oranges, shaved fennel, golden beets, spiced pecans, goat cheese and citrus vinaigrette. —As East Coast-based build-your-own-salad brands race to conquer Western markets, chefs here have begun redefining the category with their own upscale versions of the concept.

Mixt Greens’ menu includes a small selection of sandwiches and “handheld salads,” wrapped in lavash bread, and organic house-made iced teas and lemonades. —As East Coast-based build-your-own-salad brands race to conquer Western markets, chefs here have begun redefining the category with their own upscale versions of the concept.

Leslie Swallow, who holds a degree in biodiversity, conservation and management, designed the restaurants to follow U.S. Green Building Council standards, from the composting of waste to the purchase of wind power to offset carbon emissions. —As East Coast-based build-your-own-salad brands race to conquer Western markets, chefs here have begun redefining the category with their own upscale versions of the concept.

The partners, however, are reluctant to give sales numbers, which they said would only encourage imitators. Mixt Greens branches typically range from 1,500 to 2,000 square feet and are only open Monday through Friday from 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., offering employees the benefits of evenings and weekends off. —As East Coast-based build-your-own-salad brands race to conquer Western markets, chefs here have begun redefining the category with their own upscale versions of the concept.

Three or four more Mixt Greens openings per year are envisioned, in the Bay Area, Southern California and the Pacific Northwest. —As East Coast-based build-your-own-salad brands race to conquer Western markets, chefs here have begun redefining the category with their own upscale versions of the concept.

In the Los Angeles suburb of Culver City, Tender Greens opened in June 2006, a creation of partners David Dressler, Matt Lyman and Erik Oberholtzer. —As East Coast-based build-your-own-salad brands race to conquer Western markets, chefs here have begun redefining the category with their own upscale versions of the concept.

Tender Greens’ customers don’t create their own meals, but choose from a selection of predesigned “simple salads” that can be augmented with such “hot stuff” add-ons as grilled flank steak or herb-brushed grilled tuna. The menu also includes about 12 featured “big salads” with high-end ingredients. Instead of a salad, guests can also order one of the hot proteins with vegetables or in a sandwich. —As East Coast-based build-your-own-salad brands race to conquer Western markets, chefs here have begun redefining the category with their own upscale versions of the concept.

“We’re a deluxe-salad restaurant that happens to be counter-service,” Dressler said. —As East Coast-based build-your-own-salad brands race to conquer Western markets, chefs here have begun redefining the category with their own upscale versions of the concept.

Ingredients are organic and locally sourced. The average ticket is $14. The partners declined to divulge sales figures but noted sales are up 30 percent from a year earlier. A second unit is scheduled to open in San Diego this summer, with a third to follow in the fall in West Hollywood, Calif. —As East Coast-based build-your-own-salad brands race to conquer Western markets, chefs here have begun redefining the category with their own upscale versions of the concept.

In nearby Beverly Hills, Greenleaf Gourmet Chopshop opened this month featuring the produce of Southern California farms in an eco-friendly setting. The Greenleaf concept is the creation of Jonathan Rollo, a chef whose résumé includes years with the Patina [6] restaurant group in Los Angeles. —As East Coast-based build-your-own-salad brands race to conquer Western markets, chefs here have begun redefining the category with their own upscale versions of the concept.

Greenleaf Gourmet Chopshop customers have the option of selecting from 14 seasonal salads or creating their own with stops at three stations. Among protein options are citrus-marinated tofu, charcuterie, barbecued shrimp and scallops, and grilled chicken, steak or fish. —As East Coast-based build-your-own-salad brands race to conquer Western markets, chefs here have begun redefining the category with their own upscale versions of the concept.

Build-your-own salads start at $6.95, and prices for 48-ounce predesigned salads vary. The 38-seat restaurant squeezes into a 1,900-square-foot space in the heart of the Beverly Hills business district, where Rollo expects to see high lunch volumes. —As East Coast-based build-your-own-salad brands race to conquer Western markets, chefs here have begun redefining the category with their own upscale versions of the concept.

Meanwhile, Saladworks is taking steps to freshen its concept while expanding it on both coasts. With the recent minority investment of former banking entrepreneur Vernon Hill, the chain is looking beyond its Sacramento debut by planning to open its first company-operated units in Manhattan this year using a new design prototype. The new stores would have a self-ordering kiosk option with a computer display enabling guests to see nutritional information about their salads as they add ingredients. —As East Coast-based build-your-own-salad brands race to conquer Western markets, chefs here have begun redefining the category with their own upscale versions of the concept.