Julie Dunn--mother, lawyer and Girl Scout troop leader-- doesn't have time to think about what she's cooking for dinner.
So she turns to one of the hottest products at supermarkets in recent years-- salad-in-a-bag--and has an instant cure for the dinner-time blues.
"It's a matter of dumping the bag of salad into a bowl and serving it," said the 40-year-old New Yorker. "For people on the go, you can't beat it."
Pre-cut, pre-washed packaged greens are making a splash around the country. Sales jumped from about $80 million in 1989 to over $600 million last year, and industry watchers predict that number will near $1 billion by the end of the decade.
"It is definitely the darling of the produce department," said Kathy Means, spokeswoman for the Produce Marketing Assn., a Wilmington, Del.-based trade group for the fresh fruit and vegetable industry. "It's a good value, very handy and tastes good."
Bagged salads have long been popular in the food service business, with vats of shredded iceberg lettuce, carrots and red cabbage staples at many restaurants.
In the early 1980s, several produce manufacturers tried to take a similar product to the mass market, but the concept didn't sell. Many consumers were wary of the freshness of such salads.
Then, in 1989, manufacturers gave the idea another try, test-marketing packaged greens at selected stores. Sales were slow at first but began picking up in the early '90s.
Much of the renewed interest came from an improved product that stayed fresher for a longer period of time, thanks to the development of breathable bags that allowed oxygen and carbon dioxide to circulate. Previously, the packaging suffocated the greens, making them wilt quickly.
In addition, stores moved the greens from produce bins into special refrigerated cases that control the temperature at about 40 degrees or below and helped secure a longer shelf life.
"The technology originally was not adequate and people had been burned because the salads didn't stay fresh," said Steve Taylor, chairman and chief executive officer of Fresh Express Inc. in Salinas, Calif. "We've now developed a system that can keep the products fresh for days."
As market interest grew, more manufacturers joined the trend with new salad combinations, from classic iceberg to exotic organic blends.
In the last year, the product was taken even further--some of the salads come with dressing, croutons and cheese.
"We've got Caesar, spinach bacon, Oriental and lots more,' said Donna Skidmore, manager of Dole Foods Co. Inc. food center in Westlake Village, Calif. "Customers are always looking for different things to try."
Still, there are consumers who won't touch the prepackaged salads.
"It's expensive," said Doreen Smith, a 37-year-old mother in New York. "Compared to a head of iceberg, it's about a buck more."
A bag of the salad costs anywhere from about $1.40 to over $3, depending on the area of the country and type of salad purchased. Those with dressing and condiments are more pricey than the standard lettuce combinations.
Manufacturers argue that the product is cost-effective and actually less expensive than buying all the ingredients separately.
"I say that these salads are a tremendous value to the consumer," said Robert Bildner, operating partner for Andy Boy Associates in Parsippany, N.J., which started selling 17 varieties of the bagged salads in January. "They're much more economical and nutritious than most the fast food around today."
Supermarkets including Albertson's, Kroger and New York's D'Agostino have noted the growing popularity of the packaged greens and set up new, prominent displays.
"By the year 2000, it's likely this stuff will represent 25% of all produce sales," said Bildner, who also distributes packaged greens from a variety of brands to 200 supermarkets in the New York area. "That's incredible when you think where it was 10 years ago."