Rise of the Salad Chain 2010-04-22
Posted Date April 2010
Thanks to entrepreneurs, salads as entrées grow in popularity
Summertime and salads go hand in hand. Thanks to a couple of creative businessmen and a growing number of quick-service restaurant operators, leafy concoctions take center stage year ‘round, 24/7.
A Study In Salads: Saladworks
Salad chains have spouted across the country, offering customers alternatives to the food and even the ambience of typical fast-food restaurants. Chop’t ® Creative Salad Company, with locations between New York and Washington D.C., features a Salad Dude/Diva ™ brandishing a mezzaluna and a hip Reggae/world-music vibe to entice mainstream diners toward its world-class flavors, while Tossed — also in the northeast corridor and beyond — is lauded for its online ordering, unique dressings and use of runners and fine china for dine-in customers.
But 23 years ago, skeptics scoffed at the concept of salad as a menu entrée. It happened to John Scardapane, when he pitched the idea to a Cherry Hill mall developer in south Jersey. “Everyone said I was crazy…family, friends, people in the profession,” said Scardapane.
Ultimately, the developer agreed to the concept, but with a twist — sandwiches were added to the offerings. But within two months, sandwiches were off the menu and they had doubled up its salad offerings. “We out-sold burger and pizza places, and were a hit,” said Scardapane. “I’m glad I never gave up.”
That’s how Saladworks was born. Today, Scardapane’s salad-first concept has 106 locations between Massachusetts and Georgia with California and Illinois also in the mix.
This year it was crowned the nation’s #1 salad franchise by Entrepreneur Magazine.
The salad concept idea started when Scardapane, now the chain’s founder, chairman and chief executive officer, was a gourmet chef at a prestigious New Jersey country club. He noticed that a lot of golfers were ordering salads rather than burgers or cheese steaks, and as an athlete himself, he envisioned a place that served something filling, nutritious and healthy. “I wanted a restaurant where you could get a meal quickly and not feel badly after eating it.”
Fresh ingredients are still prepared, chopped, sliced or grated at every location, and the company adheres to a “no processed” produce policy. To stay relevant and successful, Scardapane and his team constantly revamp and refine every aspect of operations.
“The customers realize we’re in this business for them,” said Scardapane. “We exceed their expectations. It’s necessary to constantly strive to improve, reinvent yourself and wipe the slate clean.” A recent nine-month, $1 million overhaul refreshed the brand with changes to everything from finishes, walls and colors, to ingredients, napkins and bottling. “We stay focused because salad is our business.”
Yet competition does not faze Scardapane. In fact, he welcomes the presence of similar establishments. “I feel honored that they are related to us,” he said. “The more exposure salads get as entrees, the better off all of us will be. It’s better for the industry in general; the country is a big place.
“This is a great time to be in the salad business,” he said.
By year’s end, 120 Saladworks restaurants are expected, with plans to add 20-25 spots in each of the following years.
Bringing Healthy to the Masses: sweetgreen
Around the time Saladworks launched, three future salad success stories were born.
Nicolas Jammet, Jonathan Neman and Nathaniel Ru, began creating sweetgreen while students at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. “We wanted to create a restaurant where we would want to eat daily,” said Jammet. “We started the business to fill a huge void by taking the fast-casual concept to the next level and having a place that is healthy, trendy and exciting at the same time.”
The first sweetgreen (and yes, it’s always written in all-lowercase) opened in Georgetown in August 2007. Locations have been added in D.C.’s Dupont Circle and Bethesda, Maryland, with hopes for two more Capitol spots this year. The restaurant features an array of salads with a focus on local and organic produce and frozen yogurts. In June, the “sweetflow mobile,” a modern Mr. Softee truck, hit the streets bringing all-natural, organic, fat-free yogurt to the public. And befitting the modern era, the eco-friendly truck has a social media twist; people can track its route on Facebook, Twitter and the iPhone.
Still, salads and the “green” concepts are at the enterprise’s core.
The menu features chef-created salads with “guacamole greens” and “chic p” getting the most popular nods. Old-school favorites are the Chinese chicken and caprese, as is the “mix your own,” where customers enhance their greens with veggies; a “crunch” item such as almonds, walnuts or sunflower seeds; cheese, and meat. “Our customers are not dieters,” Jammet said. “They want to lead a healthy lifestyle and understand the value of it. They also don’t want to feel deprived and leave hungry.... We offer full, healthy meals and desserts with good portions...so there’s no chance of that.”
Jammet and his partners emphasize a commitment to sustainability and have implemented eco-friendly practices into all aspects of their restaurants’ design and operations. “Green Certified” by the Green Restaurant Association, sweetgreen earned the organization’s three-star restaurant designation.