Ask a Chef: Saladworks Enters Supermarket Produce Sections
Fast-casual Saladworks began expanding into grocery store settings in the Philadelphia area in 2019. Boosted by early success, the brand will pursue more grocery store opportunities in Delaware, Maryland and New York, as well as in airports, military bases and office buildings. CMO Mark Mears and Head Chef Katie Cavuto have used some innovative operational and culinary strategies to set down roots in the produce section, and they’ve shared some insights with Progressive Grocer.
PG: First, I’d like to begin with the topic that is top of mind: How has your business been affected by the coronavirus pandemic? How about your food prep practices, sourcing, etc.?
Mark Mears: Traditional restaurants have been hit hard, but we are using all the newer ways to get good food to guests. We are doing it all: online ordering, phone orders, curbside pickup, some of our own delivery, and tapping into all the third-party delivery providers. In our ShopRite settings, we don’t offer curbside pickup, but call ahead and delivery are popular options.
In terms of our operations, the good news is that we have always complied with food safety standards, and there’s no change there. Our preparation and sourcing is the same; so far, there have been no interruptions in our food supplies.
PG: Did you change anything about your menu when you began working with grocery stores?
Katie Cavuto: We launched in ShopRite with some different items aimed at convenience and speed. We developed prepared grab-and-go chicken, pasta and tuna salads, and a yogurt parfait. In each case, we took a “traditional with a twist” approach to the ingredients and flavors. For instance, the chicken salad has grapes and dill, and the tuna salad has fresh cranberries. We also launched with smoothies because we anticipated that people would want a little something to snack on while shopping. Both the prepared fresh salads and the snacks are great hand-held items.
MM: Convenience is a big selling point on these items. Shoppers can buy them from our in-store restaurant registers or at the stores’ cash-out sections. They are EBT and food stamp qualified, so they fill a lot of shopper needs.
PG: What are some of your bestsellers from your recent grocery store partnerships, and do they differ from your other sales?
MM: Our create-your-own, single-price-point salads have been a great hit. Shoppers and diners make them with a base of mixed greens, mixed grains or a mix of both; add up to five ingredients like roasted broccoli, blue cheese and chicken; and finish their creations off with one of our signature dressings. Our brand positioning is to “be original,” and this option allows for that.
PG: Do you notice any differences in the customer bases between your stand-alone settings and grocery stores?
MM: The basic demographics are the same, but the psychographics are different; customers are less meal-driven and more driven by shopping. The mindset is, “I have my list, but hey, Saladworks’ take-home is intriguing.” Our outreach has also been really different. We have looked at ShopRite’s strategies and followed their lead with traditional grocery store strategies like direct mail, circulars, menus stuffed in bags, in-store signage, sampling, daily specials, etc. We’ve learned a lot.
KC: Our make-your-own format appeals to everyone and ensures everyone can find something they love on the menu.
PG: What dietary preferences are important to consumers right now, and what are some of the ingredients that help fill those demands?
KC: We’re seeing an emphasis on plant-based eating, and Saladworks has been at the forefront of this since 1986, when we opened our first store. Plant-based can mean many things, and we like to take a plant-centric approach to the plate. We want our diners to push the amount of the plate that is filled by plants as much as they can, so that the majority of a meal is leafy greens, grains and all the other delicious options from the plant world, like sweet roasted root vegetables, grains and beans. Our menu flexibility and customization mean that most dieting preferences – from Mediterranean to vegan and Paleo — are represented. We like to develop “safe adventures” in eating, so if a diner isn’t ready to commit to a full meal of quinoa, they can try the grain-rice mix; the same with kale or some of the heartier greens, which can be mixed with more familiar romaine.
PG: Comfort food is especially important in turbulent times. Tell me about some Saladworks options that feed that need.
Roasting vegetables brings out a rich sweetness of flavor. Add warm grains, bacon, some nice cheese and other “a little goes a long way” indulgences, and you have a deeply satisfying salad. Our soups are also a natural choice for comfort food.
MM: I would add that putting that salad in a wrap creates a comforting meal because hand-helds are a tactile way to eat.
PG: Anything else in the pipeline you can discuss or tease us with?
KC: In menu R&D, we are working with tofu, smoky roasted chickpeas, za’atar-spiced cauliflower and more options that embody our fresh, flavorful, plant-centric approach.
MM: The COVID-19 crisis prompted some of our franchisees to take meals to people working on the front lines in hospitals. We were so impressed by this that we’ve developed the Five for Lives program, which funds a free meal to health care workers and hospitals for every $5 the guest chooses to donate on top of their order. We pride ourselves on being a brand with a heart, and we want to give nutritious meals to heroes who are going without sleep and with no time to eat.