Having turned his trendy chain of New York-based salad restaurants into a success, Chop’t Chief Executive Officer Nick Marsh is determined to go national.
The trick will be convincing middle America that salad is cool again. Salad consumption has declined steadily since the fitness-crazed 1980s, when model Elle MacPherson touted Burger King salad bars and Richard Simmons pitched spray-bottle dressing. Only 4.8 percent of restaurant lunches include a main-dish salad, about half as many as in 1989, according to research firm NPD Group Inc.
“We really had to change people’s perceptions of what a salad could be” when Chop’t opened its doors 12 years ago and “recruited” diners with a dish featuring steak, fried onions and blue cheese, Marsh said in an interview. “In the immediate future, Chop’t has the opportunity to be in a lot more places.”
While diners on the coasts have embraced Salad 2.0, NPD research shows that many Americans prefer sandwiches and are more likely to grab chips or other bagged snacks than a side salad. Despite grocery aisles stacked with handy, pre-washed boxes of arugula and baby spinach, home consumption of salad is barely growing, according to NPD. Boomers are eating more indulgent foods as they age, and millennials prefer such trendy fare as sauted kale and juiced greens.
“A lot of people think of salads as bird food, like ‘How could I ever be satisfied by this itty-bitty plate of lettuce no matter how pretty it is,’” said Kate Taylor, who writes the Cookie & Kate food blog. “We’ve grown accustomed to giant plates of food.”
Restaurateur Norman Brinker, the late founder of Chili’s and Steak and Ale, is widely credited with helping popularize the salad bar in the 1970s and 1980s, when Americans became increasingly health conscious. Before long, even fast-food joints had salad bars, including Wendy’s Co., which called its version the Garden Spot. In 1985, Burger King tried to lure diners to its salad bar with a television commercial that juxtaposed parts of MacPherson’s anatomy with floating mushrooms, peas and other ingredients.
“Every restaurant put a salad bar in their restaurant, addressing health concerns,” said Harry Balzer, an NPD analyst. “As time went on, every one of them pulled it out. Consumers weren’t willing to make salads at salad bars.”
What was appetizing for boomers became tacky for their millennial kids. Wendy’s pulled the plug on Garden Spot in 2006. Fresh Choice, a chain of all-you-can-eat salad restaurants on the West Coast, shut down about two years ago.
Generation Y is “looking for contemporary décor, atmosphere and ambiance combined with quality ingredients,” said Darren Tristano, an analyst Technomic Inc. in Chicago.
What’s more, each generation defines health differently. In the 1980s, the focus was on avoiding harmful substances; today it’s on adding healthy ingredients, Balzer said.
Making salads cool again now falls to a new generation of restaurants like Sweetgreen, Fresh & Co. or Chop’t, where young professionals wait in line for a quick and healthy meal. The salads are prepared by counter staff -- no customers laboring under a sneeze guard here -- and there are typically other options such as wheat pasta and grilled vegetables.
Chop’t tries hard to live up to its billing as the “creative salad company.” Its Modern Asia concoction features “edamame, pickled broccoli and carrot slaw, crispy Chinese noodles and slivered almonds with spinach and romaine lettuce.” The salads are diced with a two-handled mezzaluna knife, giving a more uniform flavor to each bite.
Alexandra Madar, a 20-year-old who moved to New York a few months ago, frequents Chop’t -- in part because it’s fast.
“It’s super healthy and you get it very quickly,” she said. “You can go with what’s on the menu or pick your own things. It’s all instantaneous.”
Chop’t is riding a consumer stampede toward fast-casual restaurants, typified by Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. They tend to be more upscale and focused on fresh ingredients than fast-food places, though they lack a wait staff. Full-service restaurants, focused on salads or not, are suffering.
“People aren’t sitting down and eating as much as they used to,” said Peter Saleh, a Telsey Advisory Group analyst.
Fast-casual restaurants are outpacing fast-food joints and will account for 15 percent of the U.S. industry within 30 years, up from 4 percent now, according to Sanford C. Bernstein.
Still, traditional fast-food chains remain dominant in much of the country, and leafy greens don’t fare well there. Salads make no more than 3 percent of McDonald’s Corp. U.S. sales, Chief Executive Officer Donald Thompson said last year.
Often cost is the issue, Saleh said. A McDonald’s Southwest salad with chicken is more than $4, compared with less than $2 for a double cheeseburger. Fast-food customers are typically lower-income, Saleh said. “They have a lot of sensitivity to price change.”
Food trends tend to start on the coast and head inward so salad chains in New York or California could eventually reach the rest of the country. First, though, many diners will have to get past lingering perceptions of salad as diet food.
“Salad has kind of a bad rap,” said Tara O’Brady, who writes the Seven Spoons blog. “I remember the commercials where it was women who ate salads because they were trying to lose weight. It wasn’t something you enjoyed.”