The End of the Salad Bar
by Chris Kaiser
Can any Silver Sager imagine life without the ubiquitous salad bar? Once a mere afterthought to keep display items on ice, over our lifetimes it has morphed into a 40-plus-item behemoth with raw and prepared foods and both hot and cold selections. But the current coronavirus pandemic has seen the disappearance of the salad bar, and it might remain scarce even after the pandemic settles down.
An informal poll I took among friends suggests the salad bar is done. Many said they’d be wary of using salad bar utensils that are routinely handled by countless people. And sneeze guards may have to be improved for a better feeling of safety.
“I think it is safe to assume that the “new normal” for venues that have made a living off of serving buffet-style offerings at a discounted rate will trend down for the foreseeable future, and rightfully so,” says Josh Lang, a food and beverage consultant, based in Las Vegas. “The appeal was always the price point, not the health and safety standards. They will be the last pillar of the food service industry to come back, if ever,” Lang speculated.
It may take foodies several years before they get over their fear of eating at a salad bar. So, while we grieve the salad bar’s absence and potential demise, let’s review its history and evolution.
1939 – Though technically not a salad bar, the smorgasbord is one of the earliest known commercial self-serve buffets in the U.S. The smorgasbord gained prominence in the Swedish pavilion at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, where warm and cold appetizers were offered on a revolving, circular table. The word smorgasbord literally means “open sandwich table,” and a friend joked that it’s a “salad bar with herring.”
From the New York World’s Fair, we jump to 1950. Two restaurants claim to have invented the salad bar in that year.
1950 – The Sky Club in Plover, Wisconsin, advertises on its website: “Home of the First Ever Salad Bar 1950.” The Sky Club has been in operation since 1935. Today, it is owned and operated by the Freund family, who bought the restaurant in 1961.
“We take great pride in having the first-ever salad bar,” says proprietor Eric Freund. Although the restaurant is currently serving tossed salads with meals, Freund is confident his customers will eventually demand they bring back the salad bar.
In a 1987 article in the Stevens Point Journal, Russell Swanson talks about building that first salad bar for the Sky Club. Swanson had specialized in building bars for taverns when, in 1950, the proprietors of the Sky Club asked him to construct a refrigerated unit for salads and condiments on display.
As a sign of the times, Swanson said he purposely built the salad bar on the opposite side of the dining room so the women could show off their dresses as they walked over to it.
Swanson said he tried to sell the idea of salad bars to other restaurants but found little interest. He was told that people want to be waited on for everything.
1950 – The second restaurant to lay claim to the invention of the salad bar in 1950 was The Cliffs in Springfield, Illinois. Although no longer in operation, The Cliffs’ dining room is featured in an advertising postcard of the period. In the photo, a multi-tiered salad bar is visible. In addition, there is a Yellow Pages listing from 1951 for the restaurant that refers to the “salad bar buffet.”
1959 – The sneeze guard was patented in 1959 by a germaphobe inventor and restaurateur by the name of Johnny Garneau. Garneau owned several restaurants in Ohio and Pennsylvania that featured American-style smorgasbord buffets, according to Smithsonian magazine. In the early 1960s, the FDA regulated the presence of food shields, and now all 50 states require some type of sneeze guard on open food buffets.
1966 – It was really in the late 1960s that the modern salad bar as we know it began to take off. In 1966, Norman Brinker opened his first Steak and Ale in Dallas, a mid-priced, casual-dining establishment where an entree came with unlimited trips to the salad bar. Within 10 years, Brinker had nearly 100 such restaurants in the U.S.
In a 2002 interview with a North Texas public-radio station, Brinker said the appeal of the salad bar worked on several levels. First, it occupied the customers during the wait between ordering and receiving entrees. Second, it created a greater sense of value and customization.
1970s – In the 1970s, the fast-food chain Roy Rogers began to offer its “fixin’s bar,” essentially a mini-salad bar with lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and pickles. It stayed around for a decade or so. Wendy’s went a step further and offered a full salad bar. In the 1980s and 1990s, the fast-food restaurant unveiled their “Superbar” buffet, which included Mexican and Italian food stations. The Superbar was so popular that employees were challenged to keep it clean and well stocked. The Superbar disappeared in 1998, and Wendy’s discontinued all salad bars in 2006.
1980s – Steak and Ale imitators saturated the market in this decade, cementing the popularity of the salad bar. Imitators included the Bonanza and Ponderosa steakhouses. Their salad bar buffets ultimately included many hot items.
2000s – The salad bar’s step-sister, the hot buffet, “took a real hit during the recession [of 2008], and were one of the most bankrupted categories in the restaurant business,” according to Aaron Allen, chief strategist at the Aaron Allen & Associates restaurant consultancy, in an article in Vox. “When you look at what went away, buffets and steakhouses were the two that got hit, primarily.”
2009 – This was the year Pizza Hut in China announced it would be removing salad bars from its restaurants. Only one trip to the salad bar was permitted, so customers became adept at “salad stacking,” which involved amazing feats of engineering to create foot-high structures. (See here for images of these amazing salad stacks: https://kotaku.com/how-chinese-ingenuity-destroyed-salad-bars-at-pizza-hut-834835079)
Today – Food markets like Wegmans and Whole Foods have removed their refrigerated salad bars and heated buffet bars and replaced them with refrigerated units containing cellophane-wrapped single- and multi-serve fresh and cooked foods. When asked, a manager at Wegmans wouldn’t speculate on when—or even if—the salad bar and hot buffets would return.
The Future – The future may have already arrived in the form “Sally,” a vending machine for salads from Chowbotics. Sally allows users to create a customized bowl choosing from up to 22 different ingredients. Users can also select from pre-programmed chef-designed meals. The machine has replaced salad bars in more than 70 hospitals and is slowly making its way into grocery stores, according to Leith Steel, a brand strategist with the creative-services agency Carbonate.
“The appeal in grocery is really the capability of customization,” Steel says. “All of the self-serve bars have been shut down. Sally provides a safe alternative, with ingredients sealed in an air-tight refrigerated container, which reduces risk of contamination.”
Even if we get a vaccine and the pandemic slows down, the events of 2020 have had an effect on people that’s going to be hard to shake. The year 2020 may turn out to be an important one for the history of the salad bar. Will consumers again feel comfortable sharing serving utensils or standing in line next to strangers who might possibly be infected? Only time will tell.
Salad Bar Syndrome
When and if salad bars return, be wary of a little-known health issue called “salad bar syndrome.”
Salad bar syndrome arises from the use of sulfites to keep fruits and vegetables looking crisp and fresh. Less than one percent of the population will have a reaction to sulfites, and five percent of these are asthmatics. Adverse reactions can range from a persistent but non threatening cough to a serious airway blockage.
In 1986, the FDA banned the use of sulfites on fresh fruits and vegetables after receiving reports of adverse reactions. The problem is that restaurants are on the honor system and are not required by law to disclose their use of sulfites.
Home of the First Salad Bar
Since 1961, brothers Eric and Patrick Freund have owned the Sky Club in Plover, Wisconsin, which claims on its website to be the birthplace of the salad bar in 1950.
Currently, the restaurant has put its 40-plus-item salad bar into storage because of the coronavirus pandemic. But customers frequently call to ask if the salad bar is back, according to Eric.
“We may end up bringing back a limited salad bar menu, maybe five or so items served family style for the table,” he says. “It’s a work in progress but having a direct relationship with the health inspector is key.”
Eric believes it could be six to 18 months before the full salad bar is up and running. An initial idea is to have servers wearing gloves behind the salad bar scooping out food for customers. An expensive alternative, he admits.
“Consumers can stay home for only so long,” Eric says. “Consumers drive everything in the U.S. If the consumer is not confident, neither are we. Every few weeks we re-evaluate things. We are good at understanding our consumer. If we need to change our model, we’ll change it.”
Photo credit by: Dan Gold (NY, NY) @danielcgold
Chris Kaiser is retired from an award-winning career as a medical editor and writer. Before taking on journalism, he was a chef. He is currently studying and writing poetry, having been published in the Eastern Iowa Review, Better Than Starbucks poetry magazine, and The Scriblerus. His poetry has also appeared in “Action Moves People United,” a music and spoken-word project partnered with the United Nations, as well as the DaVinci Art Alliance’s “Artist, Reader, Writer” exhibit, which pairs visual art with poetry. He is currently reviewing poetry books for the Mad Poets Society and holds an MA in theater. He lives in suburban Philadelphia.