Today’s consumers love convenience, want to eat healthier and like to be in the driver’s seat when it comes to tailoring their food choices to their needs.

Salad bars check all three boxes nicely. And, not surprisingly, they’re thriving in retail foodservice.

At the retail grocery level, Coral Gables, Florida-based fresh fruit and vegetable grower-shipper Del Monte Fresh Produce is best known for what it supplies to produce departments. But the company also has a presence in retail foodservice —specifically, salad bars.

“We supply multiple fruit and vegetable items for grocery store salad bars, as well as various seasonal produce such as mangoes and berries,” says Dennis Christou, the company’s vice president of marketing. “The growth in grocery store salad bars is significant for Del Monte, as is the case with other outlets for fresh-cut fruit and vegetables.”

Del Monte’s fruit and veggie product roster for instore salad bars also has expanded in recent years, Christou says. Fresh fruit, in particular, is becoming a more popular option for grocers to stock on their bars, he says.

Among the new products offered by Del Monte are Gold Pineapple Rings. Speared cut fruit, meanwhile, isn’t new but has been growing in popularity for salad bars, he says. And with Del Monte’s purchase, in February, of Salinas, California-based vegetable grower-shipper Mann Packing Co., the company will be supplying salad bars with more fresh-cut vegetables.

“Del Monte Fresh Produce focuses on three main factors: innovation, product assortment and convenience,” Christou says, and the expanding portfolio of value-added items the company provides to instore salad bars is a testament to that.

Typically, Del Monte product is shipped to grocery store salad bars in 2- to 5-lb bulk containers, Christou says. When retailers contract with the company, they can be assured of high standards.  “We are committed to providing premium quality produce, frequent deliveries and good cold-chain maintenance,” he says.

Big growth — and profits

Kansas City, Kansas-based retailer Ball’s Food Stores Inc. has salad bars in all of its Hen House and Price Chopper banner stores, says Mike Tilden, the company’s director of deli and bakery.

In recent years, when other retail chains have cut back or eliminated salad bar programs altogether, Hen House has maintained its commitment to them, Tilden says. “There was a time when a lot of grocery stores got out of it because of the labor, but Ball’s always stayed in it,” he says.  

Price Chopper and Hen House salad bars, all run as sub departments within the instore deli category, are among the category’s top performers.

“It’s a very robust category — one of the fastest-growing in the whole store, and it’s profitable,” says Tilden, who adds that the physical size of the salad bars the company uses has grown in recent years.  

Price Chopper and Hen House stores post nutritional information for every item on their bars, and Ball’s prides itself on using only the freshest ingredients, many of them sourced from local suppliers, Tilden says. Obviously, that can be challenging during Midwestern winters, but once spring arrives, deli leans on its close partnership with the Ball’s produce division and begins bringing in fruits and vegetables from Kansas, Missouri and other regional farmers.

Dedicated salad bar teams at all stores keep the bars full, clean and organized throughout the day, he says. At the company’s Hen House store in Leawood, Kansas, for instance, there’s always someone working the bar around lunchtime to make sure everything is fully stocked.

“We have lots and lots of choices,” he says. “Customers decide what fits their needs and lifestyles best.”

The salad bar at the Leawood Hen House ($6.99 per pound) features more than 70 items in a three-sided bar. On one side are five or six different leafy greens and 28 other vegetables and beans. Another side features 12 to 15 prepared salads, which rotate seasonally — heavier salads for the colder months, lighter ones for the warmer ones. The third side has a variety of proteins and about 20 other toppings, including six cheeses. Topping it off are 16 salad dressings, ranging from Tippins brand Tuscan to a full lineup of Lighthouse brand dressings.

“Very few stores have made the commitment to size and the depth of variety that we have,” Tilden says. “Bigger is better for our customers. It gives them more choices.”

All salads on the Hen House salad bar are prepared instore, Tilden says. Proteins are also prepared inhouse (some with Boar’s Head meats), and fruits and veggies are chopped on site. 

Hen House and Price Chopper stores work hard to make sure their salad bars are up with consumers’ ever-changing demands, Tilden says. Health and convenience are constants, but other criteria evolve. “Our customers are changing,” he says. “They’re very educated about food, and they want to experiment. The idea of ‘standard fare’ is evolving in complexity.”

Today’s salad bar aficionados want new flavors, Tilden says. They want foods that are better for them, and they want to know where they come from. That’s a perfect fit in many ways for a salad bar program, he says, because it puts consumers in the driver’s seat. “People are very much into choosing their foods,” Tilden says. “Rather than buying something pre-made, with the salad bar they can create their own experience.”

Indian foods and Asian foods in general are gaining a more and more prominent position on the Hen House and Price Chopper salad bars, Tilden says. “What used to be considered exotic is now the everyday norm,” he says.

For Ball’s, trying to figure out what the next trend is before everyone else does runs hand in hand with making sure it’s in step with consumers’ current interests, Tilden says. “I think we’re doing a good job of meeting customers’ needs today — and having an ear to the future.”

Another trend the Ball’s salad bars are tracking is the need to be more environmentally responsible. The company is moving away from Styrofoam and plastic and stocking its salad bars with more recyclable paperboard packaging, Tilden says.