Get your forks out and your croutons on standby, America, because May is National Salad Month. As this celebration of greens gains popularity with each passing year, US consumers are seeing more salad options on menus.

According to Mintel Menu Insights, the number of salads menued across total US commercial restaurants increased 3% from Q1 2012-15. Greater growth occurred in the fast casual segment, with a 12% rise. Furthermore, there was a 208% increase in seasonal salads during this time, as well as an 80% growth in freshly-made claims.

With their popularity increasing, there has been a shift toward entire menus dedicated to salads, thus giving consumers a greater variety. Among the fastest growing salad types are kale, fruit and chicken salads. Three operator strategies to take advantage of the salad craze are limited-time salads, nutritional salads and upscale salads.

The US saw a 208% increase in seasonal salads Q1 2012-15, as well as an 80% growth in freshly-made claims

Limited-time appeals to ‘in the know’ consumers

We’re seeing the trend of exclusivity and secrecy take hold in the foodservice sector. Limited-time offerings and secret menu items create urgency, an air of superiority and help drive traffic. For example, McAlister’s Deli once again released its popular Pecanberry Salad through Sept. 30, while also giving consumers a chance to enter for a $250 gift card by sharing a picture of themselves with the salad. Saladworks unveiled the Spring Noodle Salad, an internationally inspired under-500 calorie meal with 28 grams of protein in the form of either shrimp or chicken that’s only available until June 15. Combining consumers’ interests in exclusivity, ethnic foods and social media allows for fast casuals to connect urgency and superiority with seasonal, upscale menu offerings.

Vague healthy claims don’t make the cut

Despite the trend toward healthier restaurant options, simply labeling salads as healthy is no longer cutting it. Consumers are becoming more sophisticated when it comes to their nutrition needs and look for specific health indicators, including low, no and free-from claims. This helps explain the 50% decrease in salads being labeled as healthy while menu claims increased 29% for gluten-free salads and 21% for vegetarian salads from Q1 2012-15.

Salad-centric concepts like The Salad Grill, Giardino Gourmet Salads and Just Salad are growing in popularity and offer items with a variety of healthful ingredients. These ingredients include organic and non-GMO produce and sustainable, humanely-raised, antibiotic-free proteins. These franchises provide great examples of restaurants reacting to consumer demands. Mintel data shows that 58% of Millennials have made an organic purchase within the last three months, while just over half agreed that they feel better about themselves when they purchase organic products.

Salads at a premium

With a higher demand for these salads, operators have taken them upscale. Premium menu item claims rose 208% across total commercial restaurants from Q1 2012-15. Premium spans from the types of ingredients used, the quality of those ingredients and the flavor pairings created. Consumers are keen on trying dishes that incorporate new flavor combinations, especially those with spicy ingredients. Mintel research found that almost four in five US adults would be enticed to order new menu items that offer unique flavors, sauces and seasonings. Furthermore, nearly three in five would be driven to try a new item if it was described as spicy.

In general, salads are a good way to attract health-conscious consumers. To keep them coming back, operators can use limited-time items that incorporate seasonal ingredients and offer a variety in terms of health indicators. In addition, since these items are often being used as entrées, restaurants will want to create upscale items using premium ingredients.

Bethany’s work as a Foodservice Analyst is primarily focused on developing monthly foodservice-specific reports by utilizing custom consumer studies, market research, and menu information. Her most recent topics include Technology in Restaurants and LSR: Ethnic Concepts.