If you’re treating yourself to meals from your local salad chain, make sure you’re getting the most for your money. Those salads don’t come cheap. We interviewed salad pros from some of the country’s top chains to find out how to order smarter and avoid the most common salad-ordering mistakes. In the process, we learned about secret menu items and some mind-blowing flavor combinations.
Here are tips from insiders at four major salad chains.
Chopt Creative Salad Co.
“We really want to help people make healthier choices and live healthier lives,” said Chopt executive chef Aneesha Hargrave. She said the company sees salads not as an afterthought but as the star. The chain has 57 locations on the East Coast.
Pro tip: Hargrave said the chain’s menu of 18 house-made dressings “is our backbone,” so she suggested deciding on the dressing you want first, then building your salad from there. Just as you can get those little spoonfuls at an ice cream shop, you can ask for samples at Chopt ― a piece of lettuce with a dollop of dressing. Keep asking for samples to taste until you find the dressing you want.
That choice is a good starting point for choosing the rest of your ingredients. “If you’re going with a heavier dressing like our buttermilk ranch, you’ll want a sturdier green like romaine or kale as the base of your salad,” she advised. “If you are choosing a lighter vinaigrette, you should consider more delicate greens like spinach or our Chopt blend.”
The optimal salad experience includes no more than five ingredients, she said. In addition, make sure you’re including balance with acidic ingredients and items that add some crunch, like nuts, seeds or croutons. “They help ensure that the salad will not only taste good in the first two or three bites but that you won’t be bored by bite six. If you follow these tips, your salad can be what we call whole bowl worthy,” she said.
Genius hack: Don’t feel you have to limit your order to just one salad dressing. The chain encourages mixing and matching to create your own dressing mashup. “I try to mix together the dressings I order for my salad every day — the more interesting, the better,” Hargrave said.
Secret menu: Ask for your salad to be dressed with a combination of one-half Mexican goddess dressing and one-half sweet and smoky chipotle vinaigrette dressing. “It has the feeling of a great Mexican-inspired sauce, and it’s very creamy,” she said. “But I feel good about the creaminess, since it comes from avocado. It’s just a beautiful mashup.”
Save $$: Hargrave suggested ordering ingredients that do double duty for one price. “If I want cheese and crunch, I can order Sonoma creamery Parmesan quinoa crisps for my salad. They’re just one ingredient, but they have both those elements I’m looking for,” she said. If you want avocado but don’t want to spring for the extra cost of that ingredient, try a dressing that’s made with avocado, like Mexican goddess, which is included in the basic salad price. “It’s made with avocados, fresh green tomatillos, jalapeño peppers and a touch of cilantro.”
“It’s definitely easy to get overwhelmed by our menu, which has more than 90 ingredients,” said Stephen Swartz, the director of marketing at Just Salad. The chain has 28 U.S. locations (mostly in New York City), plus two in Hong Kong and four in Dubai. He offered some ideas for navigating that large menu of options and making your salad order a success.
Pro tip: He suggested keeping things simple on your first order and starting with one of the chain’s 13 signature salads. If there’s an ingredient in one you don’t like, you can swap it out for free. “You can replace as many as you want until you’re happy,” he said.
Genius hack: Mix and match to change up your meals. Just Salad customers have made some unconventional ingredient combinations, such as topping avocado toast with an order of chicken barbacoa.
Secret menu: Even though pad thai is not on the menu, Swartz said he has seen customers make their own version of the classic dish by pulling together a few menu ingredients into an off-menu salad specialty. “Order a base of zoodles [spiral-cut zucchini strips], then add red cabbage, carrots and chicken, if you’d like it. Top it all off with our spicy Thai peanut dressing, and you’ve got your own healthier version [of pad thai].”
Save $$: As an incentive to reduce waste, the chain offers reusable bowls for $1 that entitle you to one or two free toppings whenever you take it in. “That includes avocado, which costs $1.49, so the bowl pays for itself after just one visit,” he said. For a chance at an even better deal, enter to win one of 100 VIP black bowls that are distributed every year. With a black bowl in hand, you can skip the line anytime and receive one free protein and two free essential toppings or one free premium topping with every use.
With 11 locations from San Francisco to Los Angeles, Mixt is the salad chain with a decidedly California vibe. “What matters most to us is creating delicious meals that support a better way of eating,” said CEO and co-founder Leslie Silverglide. She recently ran some numbers and determined that there are more than a billion possible combinations of ingredients on the Mixt menu. She offered these tips to help you create the salad of your dreams from all those possibilities.
Pro tip: You’ll be assigned a salad chef who will stay with you the whole time you’re ordering, so be sure to tell the staffer what’s on your mind. “It’s not like a conveyor belt that you move along but an experience that allows you to talk about what you like to eat and what you’re in the mood for,” she said.
Start by deciding if you want to be on the savory track or the sweet track, and your salad chef will help you narrow your options. The staffer can help you avoid rookie mistakes, like getting excited about a couple of ingredients but not thinking through how they’ll taste together.
Decide how much dressing you want — light, medium or heavy — and tell your chef. “It makes a big difference to have the salad dressed just the way you like it,” Silverglide said.
Genius hack: “People forget about our fresh herb mixes as a possible ingredient, but they can enhance the flavor of a salad so dramatically,” she said. “You can get the fresh mix of basil and mint or the savory blend of parsley, chives and tarragon.”
Secret menu: Is there a salad from last season that you can’t stop thinking about? Ask your salad chef to try to re-create it. And know that your creativity may have an impact on future menus. “Our Be Well salad [greens, avocado, chickpeas, quinoa, lentils, carrots, edamame, cucumbers, scallions, fresh herb and cilantro jalapeño vinaigrette] was created by a guest who was looking for a good vegan option. It’s been on our menu, going strong, for more than four years,” Silverglide said.
Save $$: While design-your-own salads include up to five specialty ingredients, the on-menu chef-designed salads usually have more ingredients, so they can be a better value.
It’s not all brisket and barbecue in Texas these days. The Lone Star State is also home to the 18-location Snappy Salads chain, which prides itself on being appealing even to those who have not traditionally been not part of the target salad demographic. “We’ve always said we’re so good, even haters like our salads,” CEO and founder Chris Dahlander said.
Pro tip: Snappy Salads’ menu has a section designated “First time here? Try one of these,” which features the three first-time-guest best-sellers. If you want to stick with the hands-down favorite, go with grilled avocado salad (red leaf and iceberg lettuce; black bean, poblano and corn relish; grilled avocado and tomato; queso fresco; chipotle-lime vinaigrette and crema). “It’s our invention,” he said.
Genius hack: If you’re creating your own salad, remember that it’s OK to include extra protein among your add-ins. “Get double falafel, have your own surf-and-turf with shrimp and tenderloin together — whatever you want,” Dahlander said. Menu salads’ finishing sauces can be added to create your own versions too. “You can ask for any of them, including avocado cream, basil pesto, firecracker sauce, striker sauce, tzatziki or wasabi cream,” he said. And whatever you do, he advised, add a few turns of freshly ground pepper from the provided pepper mills. “It’s a punch of flavor and a unifying force. It marries the elements of the salad together.”
Secret menu: If you were dragged into Snappy Salads against your lettuce-hating will, order what Dahlander calls the “dude salad” and know that everything will be OK. “It’s listed on the menu as Buffalo chicken salad, and it’s a top choice of even the most adamant salad haters,” he said. It includes iceberg, romaine, tomato, carrot, celery, Gorgonzola, crispy buffalo chicken, house-made Point Reyes blue cheese vinaigrette and striker sauce (which has even more Gorgonzola).
Save $$: If you and a friend are eating light and want the same kind of salad, be thrifty by ordering one full salad instead of two half portions. (A half salad is $7.85; a full one is $9.93.) You can ask for two dressings on the side. “Or if you’re ordering lunch and know you’ll want a salad for dinner too, order a full salad all at once and get a lighter dressing on the side for lunch and a richer dressing for dinner,” he said.
Even if you don’t have one of these four chains near you, we’re willing to bet you can apply these general tips to just about any salad chain. So go out and hack the system. It’ll be good for you.