"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.
The separation of the components helped retain ingredient integrity. Instructions said to combine the entire contents of package with 5 oz. of lettuce. So you better have 5 oz. of lettuce available. Not good if you were rushing like one of our tasters, did not look and figured the lettuce was there.
The chicken was an elongated chunk that gave you a real taste of chicken. The bacon had a passably real flavor but was a little tough. The thin strands of cheese made it hard to get real cheese flavor. The croutons were large, gave a good crunch and were not too garlicky.
The combination of ingredients was consistent with the idea of a club – layers of ingredients, crispy and fresh. The big detractor was the dressing. It was thin, the victim of lowered fat. It was a real negative for some of our tasters, while others just used a very small amount. A few of our folks were put off by all the packaging even though they understood the reason.
What really bothered a few was the note on the back of the nutrition panel that the container needed to be washed before using. What if you took all the components and were in the park? Washing in the rest room – not fun.
Since this is a product that many will gravitate to for controlling calories along with healthfulness, the nutrition facts become important. Many consumers think they are managing calories by eating salads, but they end up consuming more than expected because of all the added ingredients. With the front label saying one to two servings and the back panel saying one serving, it's a little confusing. None of our tasters knew what 5 oz. of lettuce looked like but hoped the container was sized to allow only that portion of salad greens.
Knowing that one could eat all the components and still be at 250 or 300 calories was comforting. Knowing what kind of nutrients you were taking in also was nice. Seeing the number of ingredients in each component was a turn-off for some of the folks who are sensitive to the number and pronouncability of the ingredients list.
Does the product deliver?
Hillshire Farm is about meat, and the meat part works. However, the salads are advertised as including "all the great-tasting ingredients you need to make a restaurant-style salad" – but then "you have to add your favorite lettuce." Perhaps a better name for the product would have been "entrée salad kits" or "entrée salad starters." Of course, those names probably didn't test as well as Entrée Salads.
How to make the Idea Bigger: For salad dressing lovers, the dressing has to be great, or why bother? Many manufacturers of dressing have figured out the low-fat dressing taste, so where did Sara Lee get this one?
While having a disposable bowl was definitely seen as being a convenience ("nothing to wash and take home from work"), having to wash the bowl before use was puzzling. So was the need to provide one's own lettuce. We felt the convenience of the salad was compromised if users had to wash and prepare their own lettuce and the bowl. Or the cost was greater if they had to purchase a bag of precut lettuce.
Also the amount of packaging added up. Those who focus on less packaging were really troubled with the amount of waste this product created.
Rating: OK, despite all those criticisms.
Market potential: This product will struggle to connect with the consumer. Either Hillshire or others will keep working this idea (like McDonald's did with its first then second iteration of salads) to get right this idea of a deli salad.
Hollis Ashman, Jacqueline Beckley and Jennifer Maca are principals of the Understanding & Insight Group, a strategy and product development firm that connects with consumers using qualitative and quantitative approaches. See www.theuandigroup.com.