The popularity of salad items of all shapes and sizes has some players in this segment wilting. Despite the increased competition, resilient players in this segment are starting to bloom.
Consumers' increasing interest in healthier, lighter fare translates into a growing number of salad-based chains taking root in the foodservice industry. As a result, a number of innovative salad-based restaurants have enjoyed impressive growth in recent years.
For example, Tender Greens, a fast-casual chain with eight California locations, saw unit growth of 75 percent and sales increases of almost 38 percent between 2010 and 2011, according to Technomic, a Chicago-based foodservice market research firm. Choice Greens, which has two locations in Tucson, Ariz., experienced a 23 percent sales increase during this period. Another success story is Snappy Salads, which has two sites in Dallas and one in Plano, Texas. This salad and wrap restaurant grew sales 17 percent from 2010 to 2011.
Despite these results and consumers' strong interest in better-for-you menu items, the salad segment of the restaurant community is not as green as it could be. "The soup-and-salad category has not been a growth area," says Bonnie Riggs, restaurant industry analyst for New York City-based NPD Group, a market research firm. "Starting in the last four years, traffic has been on the decline. Even though QSR visits are up 1 percent, restaurant visits are flat overall."
Main-dish salad sales at fast-food restaurants rose 7 percent in 2011 with the introduction of new items, but went up only about 1 percent in the year ending June 2012, according to NPD Group. Increased competition from fast-casual and other fast-food chains continues to impact growth in this area. One reason for the lagging sales is the fact that consumers still seek value in this tough economic climate. This translates into people becoming more discriminating in terms of service. "Self-serve salad bar restaurants charge close to $8, while consumers can purchase a salad at a fast-casual chain and get waited on for the same price. Also, fast-food restaurants are offering nice salads for half of this price," Riggs says.
In addition, consumers continue to become smarter and more sophisticated in their pursuit of healthier meal options. "People have come to realize that salads can easily end up containing a lot of calories," Riggs says. "Everyone wants to get their money's worth, [but in this case it may be at the expense of a healthier meal]."
NPD Group has noted the impact of population trends on this segment as well. Baby boomers, for instance, visit restaurants more than other groups, according to NPD Group. "This demographic is going for lighter options, food that can be shared or downsized entrées," Riggs says. "These consumers are not taking advantage of salad bar-type restaurants because they feel they are not getting their money's worth."
Members of the Millennial generation, now moving into their heaviest restaurant-using years, seek fresh ingredients, quality food and balanced food groups, reports NPD Group. Yet, like baby boomers, this group is not inclined to patronize salad bar-type eateries, because they pay more attention to portion sizes. "The challenge for salad bar-type restaurants is the increased competition and the composition of the population," Riggs says.
An NPD Group study examining the decline of combo meals revealed that consumers across all age groups prefer to order one or two smaller items as opposed to a full meal. This is in line with the trend toward more snacking and eating on the run.
"There is an opportunity to develop quality salad dishes that are low in fat and calories," Riggs says. "The industry has come a long way in terms of creating healthier food that tastes good. In the end, it's all about pricing and positioning."