The Rise of the Fast-Casual Salad Restaurant

By on Monday, December 6th, 2010

Greenleaf Gourmet Chopshop: salad

A good salad is hard to find — even in California. Reliable Caesars and Cobbs colonize menus everywhere, as do ubiquitous piles of mixed greens dressed with vinaigrette. Beyond that, creative salads made with quality ingredients are still an exception. For too long, they were also the province of expensive, sit-down restaurants.

In the last few years, however, several fast-casual chains have set out to make salads accessible and affordable by merging fast-food efficiency with slow-food ideals. Forget about salads as a side-dish. These days, they’re the main course.

Tender Greens: Cobb Salad

“In L.A., especially in Santa Monica, there were a lot of great, very expensive restaurants. Then there were typical fast-food joints. There wasn’t really anything in the middle where you could get good-quality organic food at a reasonable price,” says Erik Oberholtzer, who opened the first Tender Greens in 2006 along with David Dressler and Matt Lyman.

The trio met when they were working at high-end restaurants in Santa Monica: Oberholtzer and Lyman as chefs, Dressler as a director of food and beverage. Tender Greens now has four locations (in Culver City, San Diego, West Hollywood and Hollywood) and Oberholtzer expects to open three more by the end of 2011.

Matthew Corrin’s business experience came not from the world of food but from the world of fashion. He was living in New York, doing PR for Oscar de la Renta when he found himself lining up at mom-and-pop delis with good food but lackluster branding. “I thought, if you could create an incredible brand attached to this fresh food concept, you could Starbuck the fast food business,” Corrin says. That’s what he’s trying to do with Freshii.

Freshii: interior

The Canadian native opened the first Freshii location in Toronto in 2005. He expects to finish 2010 with 50 stores in four countries (the U.S., Canada, Austria and the United Arab Emirates). By the end of 2011, he hopes to have 100 stores. “We think a lot of that growth will come from California,” Corrin says.

Fresh Meets Fast

He’s not alone in betting that healthy, or at least healthier, food is ripe for mass retailing. Most big-name fast-food chains have added lighter fare, even salads, to their menus. (Recently, Wendy’s just revamped its French fries, so they’re now cut from unpeeled Russet potatoes and sprinkled with sea salt.) But the fast-casual sector, while incorporating burritos (Chipotle) and gyros (Daphne’s), remained mostly resistant to salads. Until now.

Greenleaf Gourmet Chopshop: mushroom pizza“I believe the future of dining is more along the fast casual side,” says Jon Rollo, the owner and chef of Greenleaf Gourmet Chopshop. Founded in 2008, Greenleaf has only two L.A. locations but Rollo aims to expand by partnering with health-related businesses (gyms, juice bars, etc.) and by moving into the retail sector with bottled salad dressings.

“Maybe it’s generational. Maybe it’s access. Maybe it’s awareness. Maybe it’s a combination of everything, but I think food in general has become more interesting,” Rollo says.

Tender Greens: Lamb & PolentaCertainly the awareness of food – where it comes from, how it’s made, its impact on our health – is at an all-time high. “You’re looking at a new generation that’s used to going to Whole Foods, that’s used to going to the farmers markets. That was rare even 20 years ago when I was growing up,” Oberholtzer says.

“This is the right concept at the right time for the right demographic,” says Corrin of Freshii. What is that demographic? The mass-affluent urbanite, who Corrin describes as someone who “has less time than they have ever had, more disposable income, a smaller kitchen and is healthy or wants to be healthy.”

Oberholtzer dials it in more precisely. “Walk into Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods. Walk into the Santa Monica or Hollywood farmers markets, and look around. Those are our customers. Our customers are the foodies who will spend the money to go to Mozza or Spago, but they also appreciate our price point.” He’s hoping Tender Greens will be the neighborhood restaurant they visit once or twice a week instead of the special occasion restaurant they visit once or twice a year.

Fancy Greens, No-Frills Price

At $10.50 each, Tender Greens offers nine salads that run the gamut from a vegan combo with faro and kale to a grilled flatiron steak atop butter lettuce. The salads are bounteous and made with ingredients from local farmers markets.

Rollo, too, emphasizes that he serve the kinds of high-quality salads that were once the purview of high-end restaurants. “The product you’re consuming at Greenleaf is the exact same product you’re buying at Spago, Cut or The Peninsula. We share a lot of the same vendors and buy the same products. [We make] the same salad that Spago charges $30 for and theirs is smaller,” Rollo says.

Freshii: Bangkok WrapOf the three chains, Tender Greens feels the most like a real restaurant. Greenleaf seems like a hip, upscale cafeteria. Freshii, the least expensive of the three, seems like a clean, fairly typical fast-casual eatery. Corrin emphasizes that Freshii, though often perceived as a salad restaurant, derives only 20% of its sales from salads. 20% comes from burritos, another 20% comes from warm rice and the rest comes from yogurt and snacks. The average salad costs under $8.50, while all of the bowls and wraps are under $8 (USD).

Other chains are also trying to capitalize on the salad trend: M Cafe de Chaya in L.A., Chop’t in New York and Washington D.C., Tossed in the northeast and Texas, sweetgreen in Washington D.C., Doc Green’s Gourmet Salads in Atlanta and Mendocino Farms based not in northern California but in Los Angeles.

Salad Shops Pay the Rent

The bad economy, though curbing consumer spending, has been a boon for restaurateurs looking for storefronts. “We can capture great locations we could not capture a few years ago because of the economy,” Corrin says.

Oberholtzer tells a similar story. During boom times, Tender Greens had trouble finding real estate they could afford. He and his partners were eyeing a spot in a high-rise at Sunset and Vine but Starbucks, The Strand and Links Bistro already had dibs on the three ground-floor retail spaces. “All three of those dropped out because of the economy,” Oberholtzer says. Tender Greens swooped in and its Hollywood location does a brisk trade.

Whether this growth can continue as real estate prices inch upwards and more fast-casual conglomerates jump on the trend remains to be seen. For now, the public’s appetite for healthy-ish food has yet to be sated.

Written by Elina Shatkin

Elina Shatkin is West Coast editor for Toque as well as restaurant critic and staff writer for LA Weekly. Shatkin was a staff writer at the Los Angeles Times and has written for a variety of publications in print and online. She's the co-founder of the incipient food blog Guzzle & Nosh.

17 Comments

  1. Want a salad with that? How bout just a salad? Fast-casual salad restaurants give greens star billing. http://tinyurl.com/2g74pxl

  2. Erika Kotite says:

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  3. Rieva says:

    RT @toquemag: Want a salad with that? http://tinyurl.com/2g74pxl Why not just a salad? Fast-casual salad restaurants give greens top billing

  4. Salad days are here! The Rise of the Fast-Casual Salad Restaurant http://bit.ly/icBd8G (via @toquemag)

  5. Ciji Ware says:

    There’s a small chain called Pizza Antica in Northern California (San Jose and Mill Valley are two I know about; website says Santa Monica, CA, too) that serve fabulous salads. One especially tasty entry is warm, shredded Brussel sprouts with chopped ‘real’ bacon, caramelized shallots, chopped hardboiled egg and a fabulous dressing I have been unable to “retro-engineer.” Their stand-by Ceasar is great too. http://www.pizzaantica.com

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  13. Tracy Aiello says:

    Elina, You may also want to check out Mad Greens in Colorado — with ten locations along the Rockies, they are a great example of Fast Casual salads.

  14. ES says:

    Tracy:

    Thanks for the tip. I was in CO a few months ago and will try to check out Mad Greens when I return.

    –Elina

  15. Salads take center stage at growing fast-casual chains – http://ow.ly/3nVXl

  16. Reggie Banks says:

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