Reinventing the Salad Bar

Salad bars have become a nutritional disaster over the past half century. The concept was introduced in 1959, in Philadelphia. The idea was a good one: Get diners to eat more vegetables. But what’s actually happened since then is that diners often pile vast portions of unrelated items on their plates. The salad bar has morphed into an excuse for overeating.

Our friends Rafi Taherian and Joyce Goldstein recently set out to reinvent the salad bar. Yale University was the subject of their experiment. Rafi is the executive director of Yale Dinning. Joyce, an author and food-industry consultant, teamed with Rafi to perform a radical overhaul of the salad bars scattered around the Yale campus. Their goal: create a limited number of healthy, delicious salads for the students in the format of a salad bar.

The first thing they did was to slash the number of choices students had. “We ended up with four items. We had 22 to 23 items,” Rafi said. He was speaking last month to a packed room of university food service directors and chefs.  Rafi and Joyce gave their presentation at the National Association of College & University Food Services’ annual conference in San Jose.

The two began working on the overhaul earlier this year. They didn’t want to cut corners on cost, opting to use high-quality ingredients. The salad dressings, for example, would be made from scratch using good extra virgin olive oil and vinegar. No bottled dressings allowed.

Joyce, who’s written an entire book on salads entitled Mediterranean Fresh (W.W. Norton & Co., 2008), developed four different salads, focusing on grains, beans and roasted vegetables. Two of the choices: cannellini bean salad with sun-dried tomato vinaigrette, and Tuscan sweet pepper and potato salad with a garlic and basil dressing.

To see if students would take to the idea, Rafi and Joyce performed two test runs of the new salad bar offerings last spring. Rafi admitted he was “more scared than everybody else that day. We were going to change 50 years of culture, 50 years of paradigm.”

The more than 20 items on the Yale salad bars were gone. The new vegetable salads took their place. Rafi and Joyce held their breaths … and then let out a huge sigh of relief.

“The students came over later and said thank you,” said Joyce. “We didn’t see wasted food. They just ate it.”

Added Rafi: “Overall, this has been a very good experience.”

Yale students coming to school for the fall semester will have the opportunity to try the new salad bar.

A quick note: After I returned from the NACUFS conference I read an interesting article in The Washington Post about how Uncle Sam is trying to improve the quality of food offered in federal employee cafeterias. For good ideas, the Feds should look at what Rafi and Joyce have done at Yale.

Bon appétit,

Claude S. Weiller
Vice President of Sales & Marketing
California Olive Ranch