Grocery stores are doing whatever it takes -- including deploying robots -- to save their lucrative salad bars from becoming a relic of pre-pandemic shopping.
In a push to ease skittish consumers and shore up sales, some chains are tossing prepackaged salads into the bar's now-empty bins, a stopgap measure that's easy to do, but eliminates the customization -- extra onions, less croutons, etc. -- that shoppers crave.
Publix Super Markets Inc. placed an employee next to the bar to take orders during peak hours, but that full-service option slows things down and adds labor. Others are renting space to food service chains, which eats into profit and cedes control.
The survival of salad bars "is a huge question, and no one really knows," says Gabrielle Rosi, an expert in store design who spent more than 20 years at Whole Foods Market before leaving in April. "You have these massive metal pieces just sitting there. It's a big challenge."
Salad bars drive store visits, especially during midday lulls, and their profit margins can be attractive because they don't require much labor and shoppers pay by the pound.
More than 90% of supermarkets have them, but sales by volume have been declining for several years, according to data-tracker IRI, as salad-centric restaurant chains have expanded and lured away some of the kale-loving crowd.
Even before the pandemic, some grocery-store shoppers considered salad bars unhygienic.
Now salad bars face an existential threat. More than 80% of consumers said grocery-store salad bars are too risky, according to a survey from researcher Datassential.
Retailers have turned maximizing selling space into a science, and they aren't about to let an underperforming part of the store wallow for long. But will go in their place is still up in the air.
"We haven't decided yet," Kroger Co. Chief Executive Officer Rodney McMullen said. "Right now, we have different stores doing different things."
Rival Albertsons Cos. is also experimenting with various options like prepackaged salads. "It's a difficult situation," Albertsons CEO Vivek Sankaran said, adding that "it will be a long time" before self-service makes a comeback.
Before the virus hit, the salad bar at a Heinen's supermarket could handle as many as 150 salads an hour during the lunch rush. Those sales accounted for 2.5% of the Ohio-based chain's total business, which is geared heavily toward prepared foods.
Then the self-service bars went dark on March 14 because of concerns that they could transmit the virus. Heinen's asked its in-house chefs to bulk up its small offering of prepackaged salads, and it now offers 18 varieties, all nestled inside the now-vacated salad bar space, along with individually-packaged items like salmon, chicken and fruits, so shoppers can mix and match.
Heinen's Chief Innovation Officer Chris Foltz also took the opportunity to try something totally new -- a 6-foot-tall, 750-pound robot named Sally.
Costing $35,000, Sally comes from a Bay Area startup called Chowbotics and will make its debut in Heinen's Pepper Pike, Ohio, location later this week.
Sally looks like a vending machine, holds 22 separate ingredients (including dressings) and tracks the nutritional profile of a salad as the shopper builds it on a touch screen (a mobile ordering app is in the works for those who don't want to touch anything).
Heinen's version of Sally will dish out five standard salads at first for $6.99 each, like Cobb and Chicken Caesar, but shoppers can customize and the menu will get more adventurous. Ultimately, Sally could dish out soups, grain bowls, parfaits and even full meals.
While Sally can't serve as many customers as were served before -- Foltz expects it to deliver 30-35 salads an hour -- the machine will pay for itself in nine months.
Another benefit is that Heinen's can now include pricier options like salmon, which it couldn't do in self-service stations because shoppers would pile it on. Sally, in contrast, controls how much of the most expensive salad ingredients get used.
"Now, the robot can manage that," he says. "So from a cost perspective, it's better."
Other workarounds are more simple. Amtekco Industries Inc., an Ohio-based manufacturer of supermarket salad bars that can cost upward of $75,000 a pop, has a solution.
Its engineers fashioned an insert that can hold prepackaged salads and other foods, turning a salad bar into a chilled display case.
The "cold well conversion kit" costs $200, and "we have sold a lot of them," says Bruce Wasserstrom, Amtekco's president.
Over the past month or so, a six-person team inside the company has also been hard at work on what Wasserstrom dubs "the future of food bars," but he won't divulge details.