“You know, I looked at what was the problem with restaurants. You'd go in, the waiter would come up to the table, maybe he wouldn't, and then he'd take an order, and disappear for a while. You'd fill up on bread. I said I want to let the customer see what he's getting. And that includes a salad.”
— Norman Brinker, a groundbreaking restauranteur during the 1960s and 1970s, discussing his claimed invention of the salad bar concept for his Steak & Ale restaurant chain. Whether he did or not is a point of dispute, but he most certainly had the most success with it. (He also played a key role in the expansion of two other chains that you're probably more familiar with, Chili's and Bennigan's.) Brinker, who gained status as a business guru before his death, was a master at building a more casual approach to dining—hiring cheery college students instead of snooty waiters and creating a vibe that encouraged repeat visits. And to think, it all started with the salad bar.
Five other key points in salad bar history
- In the 1950s, a restaurant called The Cliffs in Springfield, Illinois made its claim to being the originators of the "famous salad bar." This postcard in the Illinois Digital Archive also makes the case. The Cliffs (which had air conditioning!) came around nearly two decades before Steak & Ale.
- Chuck's Steak House in Waikiki, first founded in 1959 is another of the claimants of having the first salad bar. The chain is still around today, somehow.
- In 1971, the Chicago-based restaurant R.J. Grunts launched with a massive salad bar, complete with 40 different items. The restaurant, which ultimately begat a conglomerate called Lettuce Entertain You, was a key part of the salad bar becoming a trend in the 1970s.
- The decision by Wendy's to go all-in on salad bars in 1979 started a trend of salad bars at fast-food outlets, and Wendy's was out front for much of that period—at one point extending the concept to a Superbar buffet. But Wendy's eventually pulled out of the concept entirely in 2006—long after its competitors did the same.
- In the early 1990s, the salad bar concept began to evolve in big cities, so that many smaller restaurants began to try it on for size. This is around the time that the salad bar concept moved away from all-you-can-eat to the scale-based format, which is also used in grocery stores. "Salad bars have become the cafeterias of the 90's—cheap, convenient and with something for everyone," The New York Times wrote about them in 1994.
(Photo by Grant/Flickr)
Pay by the pound: How Whole Foods ruined a good thing
It's arguable that the biggest problem Whole Foods has with the public is its scales. Its hot and cold salad bars, which would likely be considered a buffet if it didn't charge by the ounce, probably do more than anything else to give the chain its reputation as "Whole Paycheck."
Last year, the company found itself the target of some embarrassing headlines in New York City, which were caused in part due to "scales not being calibrated correctly." The company responded with a blog post and video titled "Addressing Weight and Pricing: A Message to Our Customers," which featured two contrite-looking co-CEOs. It's long been a big problem for the grocer, but it's been much more of one for consumers, who end up paying extra cash for those rubber-band-wrapped boxes.
(The company eventually settled with the city for $500,000.)
But let's assume the scales are calibrated correctly. The food's pretty good, but there's sure a lot of couscous, and heavy dressing in the mix. And at the hot bar, they sure are nudging you toward the mashed potatoes, the mac and cheese, and the red beans and rice, aren't they?
(Photo by Shoshanah/Flickr)
That's no accident, of course. Those salad bars are designed to be immensely profitable for Whole Foods, which most assuredly does not pay $8.99 per pound for all those ingredients.
Salad bars have in recent years become more aggressive at charging by weight, and they put out ingredients that are specifically designed to add weight, like croutons and dressings. (Many salad-bar strategy guides specifically recommend you buy the heavy ingredients separately and add them to your salad after the fact.)
But Whole Foods has taken this maximize-weight approach to a different level by putting particularly heavy things out there as options. The fried chicken and casserole prey on your worst nourishment tendencies, those moments of impulse that you would otherwise avoid at all costs. And for those who want to eat something more exotic—ooh, johnnycakes!—they have you covered, too.
They're tricking you into getting more than you actually want, and by the time you've realized you've put $20 of stuff into a biodegradable bowl, it's too late. It's not like you're gonna put that gravy-covered lump of mashed potato back, are you?
Whole Foods knows that this strategy is brilliant and effective, but it can in fact be defeated. In a 2011 New York Times Magazine piece, statistical genius Nate Silver recommended that people buy goods at the salad bar that cost as much or more elsewhere in the store. Instead of romaine lettuce, get in on the mesclun; get some blue cheese instead of the ranch; and get loads of exotic toppings, which often cost as much or more in the store than the salad you're getting.
The scales may not be calibrated properly, but there's still room for you to tip them in your favor.
“Being the germaphobe that he was, he couldn’t stand people going down the Smorgasbords smelling things and having their noses too close to the food. He said to his engineers, ‘We have to devise something—I don’t want these people sneezing on the food.’”
— Barbara Kelley, the daughter of sneeze guard inventor Johnny Garneau, discussing the importance of the invention. The plate of glass separating your bacteria from the food that's just sitting out came about out of a desire for Garneau to innovate at his Pennsylvania smorgasbord business. His timing was opportune—just a few years after filing for a patent on the sneeze guard, the federal government took steps to require that every salad bar had one.
So going back to the start of the piece, it's worth asking—did those health inspectors who tried to put the kibosh on the school salad bars have a point? Even with the sneeze guards?
Last year, a South Carolina television station worked with a laboratory to test how safe a selection of salad bar food was. They overnighted the ingredients—a mix of raw and prepared food—to a Seattle-area lab, which did a variety of tests on the final result.
They found that while the food did not test positive for any of the tell signs of food poisoning—E. coli, listeria and salmonella—but much of the raw food did show signs of large numbers of microbes and coliform, some above the level of what was considered safe. But at the same time, IEH Laboratories CEO Dr. Mansour Samadpour tried to make clear that food isn't meant to be sterile, and that coliform levels can seem unnaturally high.
Still, though, it's a reminder that sneeze guards can only do so much.