"If there's any menu category that has evolved and matured to suit America's expanding tastes, it's this one (salad)" — so wrote Restaurant Hospitality magazine in 2005.
Salads generally were made of greens and occasionally tomatoes and relegated to the status of "side dish" until the 1920s and 1930s. In the late 1930s, the Cobb Salad was invented at the Brown Derby Restaurant in Hollywood, basically out of hunger (of the owner) and what was available quickly in the refrigerator. The idea quickly spread and from there the idea of the "entrée salad" was born.
Lunch is prime salad eating time. But who has the time to wash and trim a head of lettuce? Shred cheese? Cook and crumble some bacon? And, to truly make it an entrée, a meal-in-one instead of a side salad, you need to cook and dice some sort of protein to go along with the greens.
How does a food processor meet consumers' demands for freshness, quality, premiumness and variety with a pre-made salad? Sara Lee's Hillshire Farm brand answers with a kit with all the complex ingredients … except the most important one, the lettuce. For this review, we chose the chicken and bacon club salad.
Understanding the marketplace
The market size for pre-cut, bagged salad/salad dressing/salad topping is $4.2 billion, according to 2002 Mintel Intl. figures, with a growth rate of 9 percent per year. The big players are Dole, Fresh Express and Ready Pac, along with private label.
The spoilage rate of produce is high, yet these perishables account for 50 percent of supermarket sales. Freshness through packaging has driven the success of bagged salads. However, there is a limit that consumers are willing to pay for the increased freshness and convenience from the packaging. Nevertheless, when asked about the types of food being discarded because of spoilage, consumers cited fresh vegetables and bagged salads first (each with a 58 percent response rate).
Hillshire Farm, a Sara Lee brand, saw the opportunity to take its well recognized and regarded name in meats and knowledge of deli perishablity and food safety to help consumers get the convenience and heartiness they want in salads.
The key is to provide options for people who will appreciate the benefits of precut, prepackaged, proportioned and calorie-counted salad ingredients (chopped chicken, bacon crumbles, shredded cheese, croutons, and dressing) but who don't want to do fast-food salads and won't make them from scratch.
Hillshire Farm Entrée Salads have been created for both women and men who need a meal during the middle of the day that requires little preparation. These individuals have somewhat higher budgets for lunch and are willing to spend them on convenience but will not trade-off for poor quality.
According to our Crave It! and Healthy You! insights, color and taste are important in salad, but so are texture and consistency. And for most salad eaters, the more textures and flavors the better. The mild creaminess of cheese juxtaposed with the sweet and spicy crunchiness of croutons or onions are examples of what can make a salad craveable. Having a choice of the components makes the entrée salad even better since a little of you and your choices are incorporated.
The key trends in the entrée salad area are convenience, flavor and healthfulness.
Convenience: For entrée salads, both fast food operators and packaged food manufacturers are responding to consumers' fast-paced lifestyles by merging the product and the package to make the eating experience more convenient. Grab-and-go foods that allow the consumer some customization and some impact on the meal preparation help them feel better about their choice. The Hillshire package is designed for both mixing the salad and eating it. You do have to remember to have the salad greens available to mix in, however!
Flavors: Entrée salads are about the type of salad (Chef, Cobb, Asian), the toppings (meat, cheese, crunchies -- croutons, seeds, nuts, crispy noodles), the dressing (typically light these days) and other flavors, such as bacon. While the type of lettuce also is important, it comes in fairly far behind the toppings as far as enhancing craveability.
Healthfulness: Salads were a classic diet food even before the current focus on obesity. They also satisfy current recommendations for more vegetables. However, many of the most craved salad components (meat, bacon, cheese, croutons, dressing) may work against the healthy halo.
One way to get more nutrition, or at least a better perception of it, is to use different kinds of greens. For better or worse, this Hillshire Farm kit does not include the greens, so the consumer can choose any type of lettuce or even spinach, kale or cabbage. The portioning of the ingredients allows for portion control, and the nutrition facts allow a person to approximately control how many calories they want in their entrée salad.
Hillshire Farm Entrée Salads are available in 5.25-oz., clear, shrink-wrapped plastic bowls for about $3.19-3.50. We evaluated the Chicken & Bacon Club variety. Other flavors in the line are Chicken Caesar, Turkey & Ham Chef and Turkey and Cranberries.
The package has a nice picture of the final salad on a plate -- which can be confusing since right above the picture is a large burst that says "just add lettuce." To the right of the salad picture is a list of the components provided: oven-roasted chicken breast, bacon crumbles, cheddar cheese, garlic and butter croutons and light ranch dressing. It also says there are one to two servings when the lettuce is added.
When you open the lid, you see a lot of small packages. Each of the components has its own plastic or foil pouch. There were plenty of moist chunks of chicken, shredded cheddar cheese, real bacon crumbles, garlic and butter croutons and 1.5 oz of light ranch dressing.