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A colorful salad tossed in a flavorful dressing and topped with some crunchy bits can be a satisfying meal when served at a restaurant. But take that same salad, stuff it into a plastic to-go container and ship it across town by car or on the back of a bicycle, and the result is likely to be an unappetizing jumble of limp lettuce.
With the majority of restaurant traffic continuing to occur outside of dining rooms, according to the latest research from Datassential, operators need to reimagine how they prepare and package take-out and delivery meals—especially entrée salads.
Ingredients that go
Just about any food—from fresh greens and pickled vegetables to hearty proteins and warm grains—is fair game in a salad these days. However, not every ingredient travels well. Here are some things to consider when building salads for take-out and delivery:
- Choose robust lettuce. Romaine, a top green among consumers, is sturdy enough to travel. Other greens that are popular and hold up well include spinach and iceberg. Save more tender greens, such as mesclun, Little Gem or Bibb, for dine-in dishes.
- Cut to order. Versatile avocado and crunchy apple are among the top fresh fruits many consumers enjoy in entrée salads, but both tend to brown quickly once exposed to oxygen. To prevent browning, cut avocado and apple one at a time as needed.
- Separate the crunchy bits. Croutons, tortilla chips, wanton strips, nuts and seeds are among the crispy salad toppings popular with consumers. To avoid losing the crunch, send these items on the side.
- Consider composed salads. Offer such selections such as a Mexican Street Corn Chopped Salad with tangy, smoky, and spicy grilled corn tossed in Jalapeno Ranch dressing that can be prepared in advance and hold up well over time.
- Dress to impress. Classic dressings remain popular, but many consumers are interested in tossing their salad with bolder flavor combinations, such as jalapeño ranch or Avocado Cilnatro Ranch. Whatever the dressing, prevent salad sogginess by packaging it on the side.
It may not be possible to deliver salads looking the same way they’re plated on premises, but the right take-out packaging can ensure the integrity of the dish and create a memorable experience.
It all starts with finding a container that fits. If the container is too large, the salad will slosh around. If it’s too small, ingredients will get smashed.
For salads that contain ingredients such as cooked grains or proteins that are intended to be consumed warm, it’s also important to choose packaging that helps retain moisture and temperature. Hot foods that are not packaged correctly release condensation into containers, making for soggy salads.
Rather than tossing ingredients together before packaging, some operators arrange them artfully on top of the lettuce in quadrants, and then put dressing in separate containers on the side. In fact, pleasing presentation is one of the most important attributes of an entrée salad for U.S. consumers.
Beyond preserving ingredient integrity and appetizing presentation, operators also need to consider sustainability. With today’s consumers scrutinizing everything for its environmental impact, or lack thereof, it’s important to consider planet-friendly packaging. For example, millennials demonstrate a preference for reusable and nonexistent packaging, and women are more likely than men to analyze packaging materials, according to the latest sustainability research from The Hartman Group.
Among the operators taking a seriously sustainable approach to salad delivery is New York-based Just Salad. Long known for its BPA-free polypropylene reusable salad bowls for dine-in, the 40-unit chain recently began offering meal kits for delivery that come in sustainable packaging.
Other planet-friendly tactics operators are employing include reducing the size of to-go bags and asking customers to opt in or out of receiving disposable utensils.
Another approach to ensuring that a salad arrives intact is to deconstruct it at the restaurant and allow the customer to assemble it themselves when ready. DIY meals kits appeal to consumers who want high-quality, freshly made meals at home, but don’t want to pick up a pan or cut up carrots.
More restaurants have been entering the meal-kit business of late. Last spring Denny’s launched its Make-at-Home Meal Kits, which include all the ingredients for a family meal with simple assembly instructions. Meanwhile, Chick-fil-A introduced its Chicken Parm Meal Kit, complete with the cooked and raw ingredients needed to make the classic Italian meal.
Finally, ordering for takeout or delivery has become more than just a pandemic practice. It has become part of consumers’ regular routines. According to the National Restaurant Association’s 2021 State of the Industry report, 53% of consumers say that takeout and delivery are essential to the way they live. Restaurant operators that deliver on salads, therefore, stand to attract new customers, improve their margins and build a better bottom line.
Whether reimagining existing salads or creating them from scratch, operators don’t have to be R+D experts. Instead, many operators look to foodservice manufacturers to provide insights into consumer preferences when developing their next entrée salad to go.