Culinary Corner: Well Chopped

Retailers dig into greens with hopes of ringing up greenbacks

By
Abbie Westra, Editor-in-Chief, Convenience Store Products

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Datassential is starting to see some growth of non-leaf salads, indicating Tedeschi is right on the cutting edge with its grain and legume lineup—especially for c-stores, which tend not to adopt flavor trends until much further down the line.

Such salads provide a satisfying, substantial meal option, especially for vegetarians. “Whole grains have stolen the market right now,” says Michael Holleman, director of culinary development for InHarvest, Bemidji, Minn., which supplies grains and legumes to the foodservice industry.

Ingredients such as quinoa and couscous have been trending across menus for a while, but they often bring with them a higher cost. Holleman sees many operators using blends to impart different colors and textures while reducing costs, such as with quinoa-rice blends.

“Introduce them at an incremental level—so less cost, but still you’re able to intrigue people,” says Holleman.

Ethnic flavors are also driving ingredient trends, particularly Asian, Mediterranean and Latin, as well as boldly seasoned dishes that rely more on spices and herbs and go easy on the salt.

Tedeschi receives a number of Asian noodle salads from its sushi supplier that sell well in certain markets, says Goodwin. Cilantro noodle, peanut noodle and bibim (wheat) noodle options are sold out of the grab-and-go case at about 80 stores. Like the vegetarian salads, these options aren’t top sellers, but it helps a retailer differentiate itself.

“I can’t discontinue an item because it doesn’t sell in all stores,” Goodwin says. “Most of what is selling is selling in the right demographic, and you have to be careful not to make those items go away.”

The top-selling salad for Tedeschi is the Greek, followed by the Chef ’s salad and the Cobb. From there, Mediterranean Chicken, Chicken Fajita and Chicken Caesar salads do well.

Same goes for QuickChek. “Chicken is king,” says Vespole; chicken Caesar and Chicken Bacon Ranch are her top sellers. Nonetheless, the retailer introduces new flavors when it can, including expanding beyond romaine to offer a spring mix as well as fresh spinach for its new All Natural Chicken & Fresh Spinach Salad.

“As the consumer palate continues to expand, we will get more adventurous,” Vespole says. “Time will tell whether we can support three different types of greens on the menu.”

Smart Advice

Lest you think retailers who have made-to-order options have an upper hand in executing fresh salads, know that 90% of Tedeschi’s salad sales and 80% of QuickChek’s come from the grab-and-go cooler, requiring a lot of prep.

A crucial element in maintaining the integrity of the grab-and-go salad is to keep wet ingredients away from lettuce so it doesn’t become soggy. At QuickChek, where all food is prepped at the store level and grab-and-go salads have a 24-hour shelf life, Vespole avoids sliced tomatoes and instead opts for cherry or grape tomatoes. Sliced cucumbers are placed  above all other ingredients. She uses a very dry Cheddar that won’t melt in the moist container, and anything very wet—such as the roasted red pepper in the Italian Chef’s Salad—is drained and placed on the side.

Color is crucial in building an appealing grab-and-go salad, which is why those red peppers are worth draining. As for onions—forget them: They are too polarizing to begin with, says Vespole, and the aroma can overpower the entire container.

Even more considerations are required at the commissary level. “I could not make a mesclun spring mix salad with cranberries, walnuts and goat cheese and expect it to go three days,” says Goodwin of the vegetarian option he offers at Tedeschi’s 23 stores with delis. Likewise, both Goodwin and Vespole avoid avocado on grab-and-go salads, despite its growing ubiquity on menus across the restaurant industry.

Working out of a commissary also affects your packaging choices. While Goodwin is looking at more sustainable offerings for the deli operations, the first priority for commissary-made salads must be a tight, safe seal for travel.

If you’re working with a third-party commissary to source salads, map out shelf-life studies to ensure product integrity, especially because some ingredients react differently over time, depending on what they’re paired with.

When working with grains and legumes, for example, be careful to follow  the proper cook times, liquid volumes and proper chilling methods based on HACCP protocol. (The same, of course, goes for animal proteins.) And also know how they’ll interact with any acid- or sugar-based dressings.

“You actually have to overcook the grains a bit,” says Holleman. “When you chill it, they tend to get a little al dente; and then when you add any dressing and let it sit overnight, you have the acid and sugars interacting with the bran layer,” making the grains tougher. Experiment with different cooking times to see what works best.

Cutting Edge

Goodwin watches for potential new menu items by tracking what’s happening on fast-casual and QSR menus, spotting trends such as the National Restaurant Association’s annual What’s Hot Chef ’s Survey, and leaning on manufacturers for ideas and recipe development. “They’re putting a lot more products [out in the market] than at your stores,” he says.

Likewise, Vespole watches trends from the restaurant segment, but she also tries to cross-utilize ingredients from other menu areas. “Sometimes we bring in ingredients to support a new salad recipe,” she says, “but generally we create a recipe based off ingredients we bring in to grow our sandwich business.”

Cross-utilization also helps with food costs for salads, which can be higher than for sandwiches and other foodservice items. At QuickChek, grab-and-go salads cost about $5.99, while a premium, made-to-order salad will run about $6.99.

“The average price point of the salad is higher [than sandwiches], but due to the cost of the ingredients, margins may be 5 to 6 points lower,” says Vespole. Factor in spoils and labor, and a margin in the high 60s drops to the 50s.

At Tedeschi, commissary salads cost $3.99 to $4.49, while salads at the deli can cost up to $5.99. It’s a higher price point, but one that the salad customer will be willing to pay if it’s an appealing offering.

And Goodwin won’t give up on his more unique salads, or trying to lure in that discerning salad customer who wants couscous, edamame and bibim noodles.

“We continually need to develop things outside of the traditional wedges and subs,” he says. “We need to keep it fresh and moving.”

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