Will Salad Bars Return To Give Produce Sales a Boost?

Originally printed in the August 2021 issue of Produce Business.

Students from kindergarten through college have spent the past year and a half learning virtually and are anxiously heading back to campus, classrooms and cafeterias. With schools and college campuses opening, what is the outlook for salad bars?

Plans for opening and feeding students vary wildly state by state, which makes things challenging for multi-state management companies, such as Sodexo, Aramark and Compass.

“The districts I work with won’t be bringing back salad bars this year, but will offer pre-packaged salads for grab-and-go,” says Chef Brenda Wattles, RDN and child culinary nutrition expert who works with school districts around the country. “Some schools will use salad bars to offer packaged toppings such as cheese, grapes, sliced peppers, grape tomatoes, etc., for kids to mix into a container with lettuce.”

Similar scenarios were reported around the country. Walter Campbell, executive director of nutrition services for Charleston County School District in South Carolina, says although the district doesn’t have plans to bring back salad bars this year, they will be featuring “On the Greens,” where students can choose items such as taco filling, chicken tenders, or more veggies, as a salad topping.

Campbell sees salad bars coming back slowly on a school-by-school basis, and will focus on increasing their use of produce from local growers. His district has a set menu, but encourages managers to be creative, especially with fruits, veggies and salads.

Matthew Poling, executive chef, Weld County School District in Greeley, CO, outlines how they are bringing back salad bars in a modified way, with a variety of cupped and individually wrapped fresh, canned, and frozen fruits and veggies. Poling adds salad bars and self-serve stations can be a food safety challenge even pre-pandemic, so he sees this new system continuing for some time.

Many schools are looking for ways to offer students choices. Helen Duran, nutrition culinary trainer and chef with Coppell Independent School District in Texas, said the district may offer salad bars at the elementary level later in the school year.

Students will still have plenty of menu options with fruits and vegetables when school is back in session, she adds. “At our middle schools, we have staffed ‘build your own’ stations (think Chipotle). We plan to add more veggie garnishes, such as cabbage slaw in our burrito bowls.”

Although salads bars are not scheduled to make a comeback until after the winter break in Minneapolis (MN) Public Schools, Bertrand Weber, director of culinary and wellness services, says they will be offering some self-serve fruit and vegetable options in addition to putting produce stands at the end of the line for the secondary schools.

Schools in some states, such as California, will be required by state public health departments to have staff hand salad bar items to the students. Stephanie Bruce, director of nutrition services with Palm Springs (CA) Unified School District, says they will either hand students a pre-plated meal or have everything packaged. In elementary schools, students will receive a pre-plated meal with whole or cut fruits and vegetables. Secondary schools will have serving lines with packaged fruit and vegetables.

Remaining flexible, most schools have scaled back menus until restrictions are lifted, but plan to bring back produce bars when possible.


What about college campuses, where students have come to expect variety and choices of global flavors? Kurt Kwiatkowski, senior executive chef of residential dining at Michigan State University in East Lansing, MI, says the university will still be offering salad bars, “but they will be limited, and we will be serving the guest instead of self-service.”

“In many units, we will continue to offer specialty entrée salads. We are developing more plant-forward recipes and looking for our guests to utilize our mobile ordering platform for customized items from entrée salads to sandwiches, to grain bowls and pasta tosses.”

On the commercial foodservice or restaurant side, many concepts famous for salad bars and buffets have been hit hard by the pandemic — some have closed their doors for good or are in stages of closing. On the bright side, Raleigh, NC-based Golden Corral has been reopening units around the country with lines out the door. Dr. Darryl Mickler, vice president of food and beverage for the chain, said they are continuing to offer a range of fruits and vegetables on both the hot and cold bars. However, the restaurant’s iconic chocolate fountain, where guests lined up to dunk their fruit, had to go.

The produce industry will have to wait a little longer for salad bars to return to the star status they have enjoyed, but it is good to know that creative operators are finding ways to keep fruits and vegetables front and center for students and families.

Susan Renke is a foodservice industry marketing veteran, who has worked with a variety of food and agriculture organizations, including Driscoll’s, Sunkist, Sun World, the California Strawberry Commission, the Produce Marketing Association, and the Culinary Institute of America. In her current role, Susan is the Promotion Director for the Pacific Northwest Canned Pear Service. Susan also leads culinary tours to domestic and international destinations with her company, Global Palate Adventures.