As consumers clamor for healthier fare, the nation's fast-food chains have responded with a new mantra: Don't hold the lettuce.
In the last year, nearly all of the largest burger chains in the U.S. have begun piling mandarin oranges, roasted almond slivers or charbroiled chicken on mounds of mixed spring greens, hoping to keep themselves out of the red. San Diego-based Jack in the Box Inc. joins the garden group today as it rolls out Jack's Ultimate Salads -- its first venture into premium-priced salads.
It joins Wendy's International Inc., McDonald's Corp., Burger King Corp. and CKE Restaurants Inc., the parent of Carl's Jr., which have seen their sales slump and have launched or upgraded premium salad lines over the last year.
Across burger brands, the goal is to broaden the customer base to include more women and to regain the growing number of consumers who have defected to so-called fast-casual restaurants -- chains that offer better ambience and market their offerings as a leaner alternative to burgers.
And, as a healthy bonus, offering salads gives the chains added ammunition as they fend off claims that their burgers and fries have super-sized Americans' midsections to unhealthful proportions.
"The fast-food industry is scared to death that they've hit the wall and that they can't grow based on their present menu," said C. Britt Beemer, chairman and founder of Charlotte, N.C.-based America's Research Group. A March survey by the firm found that nearly 40% of consumers polled said they wanted to find a fast-food eatery with healthy fare.
Most fast-food chains have provided some salad offerings over the years, usually small wedges of iceberg lettuce with a carrot or two and priced at about $1 or $2. Today, with consumers enjoying more upscale fare at such places as California Pizza Kitchen, there is a concerted effort among fast-food outfits to raise the salad bar. With that comes higher prices -- in some cases the salads are more expensive than the chain's flagship sandwiches.
Jack in the Box, the nation's fourth-largest burger chain, upgrades its greens this week with three entree-size offerings: an Asian salad with grilled chicken, wonton strips and Asian sesame dressing; a club salad with grilled chicken, bacon bits and seasoned croutons; and a Southwest salad with fajita-style chicken, black beans and roasted corn.
All are more than twice the size of the company's existing side salads and are priced at $4.69, about $1 more than its Bacon Ultimate Cheeseburger and the Sourdough Jack burger.
"An increasing number of people today are looking for products that are big on flavor and fresh ingredients, with salads being a great example of the kinds of products they are looking for," Jack in the Box spokesman Brian Luscomb said.
"We look at trends and popular foods from casual and fast-casual [dining] and try to deliver those items in a fast-food environment."
Analysts say some burger chains also are looking at the success of Dublin, Ohio-based Wendy's, which was first to market with its premium salad line -- Garden Sensations -- early last year. Wendy's phased out its salad bar in 1992 and since then has offered only a salads-to-go line.
The chain's new line includes a mandarin chicken salad, with roasted almonds and mandarin oranges; a chicken, bacon, lettuce, tomato and cucumber salad; and a Taco Supreme salad with chili and cheddar cheese, all with a suggested price of $3.99 (though franchisees can charge as much as $4.59). Wendy's also has a mixed salad with carrots and grape tomatoes for $2.99.
In its first year on the market, the line doubled Wendy's salad sales nationwide and increased the number of female patrons. It accounts for about 10% of sales when commercials promoting the line are aired, spokesman Bob Bertini said.
None of the chains would reveal salad sales, but each touted the new entrees as draws for customers seeking a more upscale meal.
"We had a fabulous year last year, and a lot of that was due to the popularity of Garden Sensations," said Bertini, referring to the $7.5 billion in companywide sales for Wendy's in 2002.
He said the salads are bringing in "people who typically would not have looked to a quick-service restaurant for salads."
McDonald's recently launched a premium salad line, featuring Paul Newman dressings and chicken. A major promotional campaign will get underway this month. The salads, which will cost $3.99, will replace the less expensive McShaker salads.
"I think we are probably attracting customers back to our restaurants," said McDonald's spokesman Bill Whitman. "Customers who recognize that this is a product they could not get at McDonald's before.
"We're still selling a lot of Big Macs ... but we are at least attracting those customers who may have felt they could not get a premium salad here," Whitman added.
Carl's Jr. is one of the few burger chains with a salad bar. Last summer it expanded its offerings to include a Buffalo Ranch Chicken Salad for $3.69.
Analysts said the salads also allow the chains to market items with higher profit margins -- a welcome departure from the budget-busting burger price war that has beset the industry since last year.
Another reason may be to amass more ammunition as the industry defends itself in court and in public opinion against accusations that it is almost single-handedly making the nation obese.
With mounds of bacon and chili, the premium salads are not always the low-fat option. Wendy's Taco Supreme salad, for example, has 9 grams of saturated fat and 1,090 milligrams of sodium, compared with 7 grams of fat and 890 milligrams of sodium in a classic single burger with everything. The salad is still lower in calories, though -- 360 compared with 410 for the burger.
Still, the salads help the chains show that they have a balanced menu, said Andrew Barish, a restaurant analyst with Banc of America Securities. "That has to be at least in the back of these companies' minds."