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What Led to the Downfall of the Salad Bar?

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Nowadays, we don’t usually see the self-serve salad bar that provided quick, easy, do-it-yourself meals for lunch or dinner. Many serving stations are out of sight altogether, with grocers giving that space over to featured deli and bakery items instead. As COVID-19 restrictions have loosened, the salad bar has made a tentative return to grocery stores and restaurants, but now, this appears to have been nothing but a false alarm. What led to the downfall of the salad bar? Yes, there was the pandemic, but many industry observers agree that the salad bar’s demise was a foregone conclusion—the new normal of 2020 simply brought it home once and for all.

Mission Creep: One Large Salad, Hold the Healthy

The salad bar came to prominence as a feature of restaurants in the 1980s, giving increasingly health-conscious customers an alternative to greasy burgers. Even fast-food chains tried to yuppie up their images with green offerings. Today, the salad bar may be as much a relic of the ‘80s as Members Only jackets—only it may never come back in style. It turns out that would-be healthy eaters, left to their own devices, can put together some highly caloric salads. Give people hard-boiled eggs, bacon bits, cubed ham, gooey pastas, and all those heavy dressings, and suddenly we’re looking at lunches that don’t exactly line up with a midday trip to the gym. The salad bar defeated its own purpose.

Tainted Love (Or at Least Lettuce)

You can’t present a salad bar as a healthy alternative if it keeps giving people food poisoning. Salad bar items took their share of contamination from guests who introduced viruses and bacteria, but far worse than that, many of the salad greens were tainted before they even made it to the buffet. Outbreaks of E. coli have been so rampant in fresh lettuce in recent years that grocers have struggled to stock it safely. Leafy greens such as spinach have also been subject to recalls—in the 2010s, there were 16 regional or national recalls of lettuce or leafy greens.

It’s Better To Be Prepared

While the obvious consequence of the pandemic has been to take communal serving stations away, we can point to working from home as what led to the downfall of the salad bar. If you don’t have to hurriedly improvise a meal during lunch hour, you won’t. Workers can simply buy a premade Caesar salad without having to worry about assembling one themselves with what may—or may not—be available. Thriftier shoppers are content to do it the old-fashioned way: buy the necessary provisions and make a salad from scratch at home.

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Written by Richard Agama


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