It’s only May, but 2014 has already been a big year for salads. Chain restaurants are upgrading their leafy green offerings as consumers look for light meals with trendy ingredients, bold flavors, a wider variety of vegetables and more protein.

When it comes to salad ingredients, kale is the fastest-growing item, according to menu research firm Datassential. According to its census of chain and independent restaurant menus, kale is in 248 percent more salads now than it was a year ago, and in 1,050 percent more salads than four years ago.


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California Pizza Kitchen has done its part for kale, using it in its new California Fields Salad, which has watermelon, strawberries, field greens, baby kale, feta and California pistachios tossed with Champagne vinaigrette.

Au Bon Pain has taken a similar approach — fruit, feta, nuts and kale — with its Fresh Fruit & Baby Kale salad, made with watermelon, strawberries, mandarin oranges, feta, almonds and baby kale with balsamic vinaigrette.

The Counter and Peet’s Coffee & Tea have also introduced kale-feta combinations.



Peet’s Super Greens & Kale Salad, available in its San Francisco Bay area units, uses a mix of greens, including chard, beet greens and different types of kale tossed with feta and fig balsamic vinaigrette. The Counter, in its aptly named Kale Salad, mixes kale and other cabbages with jícama, celery and feta tossed in lemon vinaigrette.

Quinoa — the high-protein, gluten-free grain from the Andes — is the second-fastest-growing salad ingredient, and can be found in The Counter’s Hippie Salad along with goat cheese, sprouts, marinated tomatoes and garlic croutons.

Peet’s has also introduced a Quinoa Salad, which combines different colors of quinoa with chickpeas and roasted peppers in herb vinaigrette.

Sweetgreen combined both kale and quinoa in its seasonal salad in April. The VB6 Sweetgreen Quinoa Salad, developed by Mark Bittman for his VB6 Cookbook, which comes out May 6, has quinoa and farro, arugula, shredded kale, roasted tofu, roasted asparagus, green and red peppers, shredded carrots, basil and almonds topped with carrot-chile vinaigrette.

Although nuts are not spreading as fast as many other items in salads — hazelnuts top Datassential’s charts with 24-percent growth in the past year, followed by pistachios at about 8 percent — they are proving popular. McAlister’s Deli brought back its Pecanberry Salad for the spring, made with strawberries, blueberries, candied pecans and grilled chicken on mixed greens, served with fat-free raspberry-pecan vinaigrette.

In March, Wendy’s introduced the Asian Cashew Chicken Salad, with smoke-flavored edamame; spice-roasted cashews dusted with garlic, onion and sea salt; slight spicy Asian chile vinaigrette made with chile garlic sauce, roasted peanuts, soy sauce, lime juice and brown sugar; cucumbers; its nine-leaf lettuce blend and grilled chicken.

Wendy’s was also one of several chains to introduce a barbecue chicken salad. Its BBQ Ranch Chicken Salad has fire-roasted corn, diced tomatoes, applewood smoked bacon, grilled chicken in honey barbecue sauce and its lettuce blend, along with BBQ Ranch dressing made with buttermilk, Parmesan cheese, ancho chile, honey and brown sugar.

Au Bon Pain’s BBQ Chicken Salad is made with chicken marinated in barbecue sauce, romaine lettuce, roasted corn, tomatoes, cucumbers, three-Cheddar blend and light ranch dressing.

Noodles & Company is reprising its annual summertime Backyard Barbecue Salad made with pulled chicken breast tossed in barbecue sauce, corn, Roma tomatoes and red cabbage over mixed greens in coleslaw dressing.

Contact Bret Thorn at bret.thorn@penton.com.
Follow him on Twitter: @foodwriterdiary