(March 17) The hamburger wars, which flared up among the major quick-service restaurants last fall with a volley of low-carbohydrate menu options, appear to be escalating with another nutritional weapon: salads.

And the major fast-food chains aren’t simply falling back on side salads. They’re moving toward center-of-the-plate offerings that feature much more than iceberg lettuce.

“I think you’ll be seeing more salads. The buzzword that will be here to stay is ‘fresh,’”said David Yanda, senior consultant for Technomic Inc. of Chicago, a food-industry marketing, consulting and research company.

“It doesn’t necessarily have to be salads, although when you hear ‘fresh,’ the first thing you think of is salads. But I think fresh ingredients are real key for restaurants to market.”

Phase I in the salad war began in earnest last summer, when Oak Brook, Ill.-based hamburger juggernaut McDonald’s launched a line of entrée-sized salads.

The competition escalated March 8, when Dublin, Ohio-based Wendy’s International announced that it was adding a Spinach Chicken Salad to its successful Garden Sensations line.

“Promotional offerings like the new Spinach Chicken Salad reflect our continuing efforts to find fresh, innovative ways to give our customers the products they want and enjoy,” Lori Estrada, Wendy’s vice president of research and development, said in a news release.

McDonald’s responded the same day by disclosing plans to add a Fiesta Salad and revealed that it has been testing a steak-topped bowl of greens in several New York units.

The company also recently announced plans to eliminate supersized menu options with the less-than-healthy french fries and soft drinks the target.

In the past year, McDonald’s has introduced several health-oriented foods, such as entree-sized salads and healthy alternatives in children’s Happy Meals, including milk and fruit.

The company was citing its more healthful slant as a possible reason for recent increases in revenues. The firm reported that sales were up 14% in February — its 10th straight monthly gain after an extended slide.

Burger King Corp., Miami, earlier had announced plans to introduce a line of Fire-Grilled Salads, including versions topped with shrimp and charbroiled sirloin. The first of those products, which were to be introduced in two phases, was scheduled to enter the market by the end of March.

BEEFING UP

“Salads (have) evolved,” Yanda said. “In order to keep people coming back to have a salad as a meal, there’s going to be a need for proteins in the salad, as well, and maybe more than just chicken. I think you’ll see other ingredients like shrimp and pork and beef in salads.”

Yanda added that beefing up salads would require much more than adding meat to offerings; it means that quick-service restaurants will be using more fruits and vegetables.

“I also think the ingredients in the salad are going to get more competitive,” he said. “Even McDonald’s doesn’t use traditional iceberg lettuce. They use mixed greens. I think that has kind of gone unnoticed. That’s a more upscale lettuce mix than traditional QSRs would use a lot of.”

QUALITY

The battle for nutrition-minded customers likely will escalate among fast-food eateries, Yanda said.

“I think there is going to be a war on salads, and whenever competition heats up, one or two things can happen.”

One, he said, is slashing prices on traditional menu item. The other is to place a heavy emphasis on high quality and build the menu around that quality.

“I think that the competition is going to be more about quality,” Yanda said, adding that the other option would be “a horrible mistake.”

Besides, he said, margins are higher with salads, even those that are becoming center-of-the-plate items.

“Salads are becoming more of a meal instead of a side or an appetizer,” he said. “Salad sales are going to be replacing traditional hamburger and taco and sandwiches as the meal at QSR. Entrée salads are what I’m talking about, not side salads.”