Foodservice Equipment Reports

FER FOCUS: Designing Salad Bars

At first glance, salad bars seem simple enough. Pick out a counter base and top then add food shields and drop-ins and you’re set, right? Well, that’s part of it. Turns out building a successful salad bar—one that will entice your guests to build a meal, make the process and access simple, maintain temperatures, restock easily and stay tidy—takes far more consideration.

We caught up with five industry experts and asked about their rules for building great salad bars. They shared their thoughts on key operational and structural features, equipment advances, mistakes to avoid and more. Be sure to check out their favorite designs, as well as our product gallery featuring salad-bar equipment and supplies.

Chris Dahlander: Merchandising Produce



A slanted, custom-designed salad bar displaying a cornucopia of salad ingredients lures guests to dine at Snappy Salads.


Foodservice veteran Chris Dahlander opened Dallas-based Snappy Salads in 2006 to fill a niche for quick, healthy salads in an eco-friendly restaurant. He wanted to create a place where everyone felt welcome, hence the slogan, “So good, even guys like our salads.” The chain opened its seventh Texas location in February.

When developing Snappy Salads, Dahlander, who previously served as marketing director for Brinker Int’l.’s Romano’s Macaroni Grill, found inspiration in Chipotle Mexican Grill’s build-to-order menu concept. But instead of building burritos, employees at the restaurant assemble salads using a custom-designed, 14-ft.-long salad bar. Guests can dine in or take items to go.

Dahlander designed the bar, which tilts at a 25° angle toward guests, to look like a bountiful cornucopia of cold ingredients, including produce, nuts and cheeses. Containers of varying sizes, textures and colors hold the ingredients and are nested in nugget ice, giving the produce a fresh appearance. Freezer coils run underneath the bar’s well to keep the ice cold. As ice melts, it drains down through the counter and into a floor drain. Staff periodically replenishes the ice throughout the day using buckets filled from an ice machine in the back. At closing time, they move the ice to a prep sink to melt.

“We took a retail approach to the salad-bar design,” he explains. “I wanted it to draw your attention just as a great window display does when you walk through a shopping mall.”

A 58½-in.-tall food shield separates the salad bar from customers. “We tilted the food shield because, after the first store opened, we realized that a vertical food shield at that height made it almost impossible for guests to communicate with staff,” Dahlander says. “By slightly tilting the shield, we were able to improve the guests’ experience and still meet health-code requirements.”

When building a salad bar, carefully plan how staff will resupply ingredients, Dahlander suggests. “I like to eliminate the number of steps my team has to take to do repetitious movements, and that’s why we have a walk-in refrigerator just a few steps from the bar where they can reach in and replenish the ingredients,” he says. It’s important to him that guests can watch staff members pull fresh product from a cold unit rather than bring it out from a back kitchen.

“Our goal is to glorify the entire process of salads,” he says. “It’s all about perception. Visual cues, such as the nugget ice, assorted types of containers and seeing the walk-in, let guests know they’re eating fresh product.”

Mindful of the chain’s impact on the environment, Dahlander specifies biodegradable cups, salad containers and utensils; and LEDs throughout the stores.

Edward Arons, FCSI: Lasting Design



A well-located, structurally sound salad bar that adapts to menu changes will last long and stay relevant.


Growing up, Edward Arons, FCSI, senior associate at Colburn & Guyette, Rockland, Mass., and chair of FCSI’s New England Chapter, spent much of his time in his family’s restaurant. “You could say I was brought up in the back-of-house,” he laughs. For the past 17 years, he has worked as a foodservice design consultant.

“Salad bars continue to be popular these days as customers demand healthier foods,” Arons says. He adds that while salad bars are just one among many menu platforms in a servery, they do require well-thought-out design.

Before the design, identify specific needs and map out your menu options. Frost tops, bread stations and hot wells are some examples that may not appear on everyone’s initial salad-bar wish list. How many guests do you plan to serve, and what choices do you plan to give them? When determining what order to place the ingredients, look at the customer flow, the popularity of the items and the length of time required to plate selections.

Bars can range in size from 10-12 to 23-25 ft. long and come in myriad configurations —what length of a salad bar do you need? How will staff restock the bar?

“Whether your salad bar is in an island location or incorporated into a line, you need to plan how guests are going to queue at the counter because compiling a salad takes time and you don’t want them blocking other people from getting to other stations,” he notes.

Next build a structurally sound salad bar. “A lot of new designs include stone or quartz solid surfaces, and if your bar is not designed properly and you’re dropping a heavy countertop on it, it can be extremely problematic,” he says. He recommends framing the bar with stainless tubing and wrapping furniture-grade plywood around the structure.

Design for flexibility on the bar top, Arons says. “Up until a few years ago, everyone was specifying built-in equipment for hot food because it looks nice,” he says. “But hot wells aren’t flexible, and operators today want everything as flexible as possible.” In lieu of hot wells, Arons might specify a hot food shelf, for instance. This allows you to remove the shelf from the countertop and replace it with a carving station.

Inside the counter, be sure to ventilate the refrigeration system. “Sometimes ventilation is overlooked,” Arons says. “A compressor running refrigeration for cold pans needs airflow and a place to reject heat.” 

Jeff Enderle: Equipment Advances



Energy-efficient refrigeration, food-product flexibility and a wider selection of building materials benefit salad bars.


Jeff Enderle, national account sales manager for Amtekco Industries Inc., Columbus, Ohio, custom designs salad bars for leading U.S. grocery-store chains. He’s always on the lookout for the latest breakthroughs that will improve the appearance and performance of salad bars. 

In the past few years, Enderle has worked with customers who specify new types of refrigeration. Traditionally, he has used direct-expansion refrigeration to cool food pans or undercounter refrigerators. Recently, he has moved toward energy-efficient glycol or CO2 refrigeration systems.

Enderle also appreciates the ever-growing selection of building materials from manufacturers. “We’ve been able to do custom finishes with granite and quartz countertops as well as different base-cabinet finishes, including recycled barn wood,” he says. “We’re using more recycled elements for the environmentally friendly aspect—as well as water-based glues and sealants—to help our clients achieve LEED certification.”

Just over the horizon, he hopes to take advantage of a growing trend toward using induction warmers vs. steam to heat soup wells and hot food-holding wells.

Enderle suggests first planning what types of foods and the number of ingredients you will offer. He notes that recent NSF/ANSI Standard 2, which encompasses food shields, has pushed food products farther out of customers’ reach. As a result, he recommends providing utensils, such as tongs and serving spoons, with longer handles. Next, determine how staff will maintain the salad bar and how many hours of labor they can devote to it. 

“Operators looking to do a salad bar the first time are sometimes surprised by the amount of labor they need to maintain it,” he says. “If you have a lot of fresh product, someone needs to stir it often and resupply it at a minimum of every four hours.” 

Enderle also recommends researching how mechanical, electrical and plumbing requirements will attach to the bar and designing to accommodate those connections. You don’t want mechanical connections coming up where you want to install a solid stainless undercounter refrigerator.

Looking forward, Enderle recommends creating a bar that allows you to accommodate changes in your food-product offerings. “As custom fabricators, we sometimes see people get overly creative, and they pigeonhole themselves,” he says. For example, a client might generate a themed salad-bar design that is so specific to a program, they lose flexibility to use it for anything else in the future. “You’re better off building a flexible salad bar and keeping your options open.” Let the ingredients market the bar. 

Christine Guyott, FCSI, RD: Healthy Focus



Set functional, visually appealing salad bars center stage.


Christine Guyott, FCSI, RD, design principal of the healthcare segment at Robert Rippe & Associates Inc., Minneapolis, has created hundreds of salad bars for healthcare facilities in her 19 years with the fi rm. “With wellness at the forefront of everyone’s mind, a salad bar can offer great food choices,” she says.

Guyott strives for functionality and visual appeal when building salad bars. Her first step is to plan how much countertop space she has, then she outfits the bar with drop-ins based on what the operator plans to serve. Use lots of colorful ingredients, she says.

Her preferred drop-in sports edges that sit flush with the countertop and allows product to push right to the edge of the insert. “Reach is so important,” she says. While some drop-ins recess into the countertop so a layer of cold air can blow across the top of the product, this flush-mount drop-in circulates cold air around the insert under the surface. The result is a product display that sits higher in the bar and within easy reach.

Pay close attention to how customers will move around the salad bar, Guyotte says. Ingredients should be set in an order that makes sense for building a salad and avoids traffic crossover. Be sure to leave ample space at the beginning of the counter for plates, bowls and takeout containers—an often overlooked feature. Also leave room at the end of the counter for fresh breadsticks, rolls and other items.

For salad dressings, she prefers pourable bottles vs. traditional wells with ladles, which drip and can get messy.

Food shields and lighting also are important. One of Guyott’s favorite salad bars features flat, horizontal food shields. “They’re no longer a focal point; they almost seem non-existent,” she says. As for lighting, she uses LEDs whenever possible. “We can now use LED lights over hot food, too, which was previously not recommended by manufacturers,” she says, explaining that heat and steam from the hot food caused the lights to fail. Note: The LEDs in the 3000K-3500K range display fresh produce at its most appetizing.

Guyott frequently designs oval- or U-shaped islands in the center of retail spaces. The shapes allow staff to resupply ingredients from behind a counter vs. in the customers’ path. For clean sightlines, she recommends utilities be fed up through the floor. And she always adds extra electrical outlets for small appliances, such as waffle makers and toasters.

Finally, use a variety of serving ware to merchandise your bar. “Different shapes and colors of containers and smallwares turn the bars into spectacular show pieces,” she says.

Reggie Daniel, FCSI: Visual Impact



The right shields, lighting and natural-looking elements showcase foods. 


Armed with a degree in fine arts, Reggie Daniel, FCSI, director of design at Camacho Associates Inc. in Atlanta and Charlotte, N.C., is a fanatic about the visual side of designing salad bars. “You eat with your eyes,” he explains. “If customers approach a salad bar and the product looks fresh and bountiful, they’re going to buy it.”

Food shields, lighting and countertop materials are key components Daniel considers when building visually pleasing salad bars for his clients. He often specifies all-glass, ultraviolet-light-bonded food shields vs. those with metal hardware supports so customers can see straight through to the food. “I want the sightlines to be unobstructed,” Daniel says.

Daniel recommends lighting salad bars with 3500K-range bulbs to achieve a natural-looking light. Other color temperatures are too yellow or blue to appear natural. If you choose LEDs, pick a color-corrected bulb or the product may appear too blue. “You want the produce to look the same color as it did when it was at the farm,” he notes.

Daniel relies on stone vs. glass-based countertops because they’re more durable. Choose a neutral color, such as black, brown or white because too much color will compete with the menu ingredients.

When specifying food-holding equipment, Daniel first asks what food items the salad bar will hold. If hot proteins are on the list, he uses hot-well drop-ins or an induction warmer that installs under the countertop but activates when an induction vessel is placed on top of it. For cold ingredients, he prefers decorative stainless drop-ins with a curved shape, or even pottery, in lieu of institutional-type standard rectangular stainless pan inserts.

“I gravitate toward containers that have a more organic feel to them,” he says. He sometimes creates an insert with cutouts specifically engineered to support the odd-shaped containers.

Each client Daniel works with resupplies menu ingredients differently. Some clients hire staff members who are entirely devoted to tending the salad bar and can pull pre-panned ingredients from undercounter refrigerators at the station as needed. If a client doesn’t have room for storage at the bar or the bar sits against a wall, Daniel situates cold storage as close as possible but out of customers’ sight. Because overall, he says, “It’s all about the sightlines.”

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