The return of the salad bar
Now with premium, on-trend ingredients, the ever-customizable approach strikes a chord with the younger crowd
Salad bars first appeared in the mass market over five decades ago. Popularized by emerging casual-dining chains like Steak & Ale and Ruby Tuesday, the colorful array of produce signaled freshness, choice and abundance to their young Baby-Boomer patrons. While they proliferated throughout the latter part of the last century, salad bars were ultimately outmatched by trendier alternatives, notably the entrée salad, an innovation that originated in California and quickly took the rest of the country by storm.
The dynamic was similar in quick service, where Wendy’s, which was the first major chain to embrace the bar, launched its version in 1979 and pulled the plug in 1997. Reporting on the brand’s successful signature entrée salad program a few years back, USA Today said Wendy’s still enjoys a halo of health burnished by the bar, while selling three times as much salad as it did in the salad bar’s heyday.
Recently, however, food bars have been undergoing a renaissance, buoyed by Millennials and Gen Zs, generational powerhouses who are newly exposed to its charms and who value its maximal emphasis on choice. The current crop, however, are clearly not their grandfathers’ salad bars.
They go big. When Chicago’s Beatrix Market opened adjacent to the restaurant Beatrix on the city’s Near Northside, it boasted a bar with more than 100 options that included the likes of quinoa and bulgur. Its popularity spawned three additional Beatrix Market locations, all of which are built around large, dramatically staged grab-and-go food bars that feature as many as 150-200 uber- trendy ingredients such as freekeh, millet and red quinoa. The menu rotates weekly and tempts patrons with best-sellers like seasonal curry roasted butternut squash with chickpeas or seasonless Buffalo chicken meatballs.