(July 3) If your salad bar is starting to look a little wilted around the edges, it may be time to implement some resuscitation procedures. The salad bar certainly is worth saving.

Aramark Corp., Philadelphia, estimates that salad bars account for 15% to 20% of its businesswith 18% to 20% of diners making it a meal-time must. The company supplies and operates dining facilities for several major companies.

According to a recent test by a buffet chain operated by Metromedia Restaurant Group, Plano, Texas, 75% of customers chose to pay extra to add a salad to their basic meal selection.

That means it’s crucial to ensure you’re doing everything you can to lure your customers back. Follow these five valuable suggestions gleaned from industry experts to help breathe new life into your salad bar.

1. SPARK YOUR GUESTS’ INTEREST

Some guests automatically will visit your salad site, but unless your restaurant is exclusively a salad destination, you’ve got to promote the salad bar as you would any menu item.

Keeping product cold is the key to creating an appealing salad bar, says Dan Coudreaut, director of culinary product development for the more than 500 Ponderosa Steakhouse and Bonanza Steakhouse locations operated by Metromedia Restaurant Group.

“Essentially, we’re trying to merchandise the cold factor by (emphasizing) garden-fresh, chilled salads,” he says. The restaurants not only keep their salads cool, they store plates in walk-in refrigerators and use plate-chillers on the bar itself with a sign noting that the plates are cold.The steakhouses also pique diners’ interest by presenting regional specialties, like jalapeno peppers and three-bean salads on the salad bar , in addition to their regular selections of prepared salads and condiment salads that guests make themselves.

Jason Giordano, executive chef for Aramark Corp., which includes Sprint Corp., Overland Park, Kan., among its clients, says the company attracts diners to the salad bar by featuring such seasonal or holiday-related selections as squash during the fall and chili peppers for Cinco de Mayo.

Sprint advertises the salad bars, salad items and their nutritional values through the corporate fitness center and in company newsletters, he says.

The nearly 100 Souplantation and Sweet Tomatoes restaurants, operated nationwide by Garden Fresh Restaurant Corp., San Diego, feature two 55-foot salad bars where diners can enjoy a featured specialty salad of the week or month, says Pat Bovee, advertising and promotion manager.

In April, the restaurants planned to launch a “Taste of Tuscany” theme featuring items with an Italian flavor. The restaurant chain planned to carry out the theme by introducing a Mediterranean salad with feta cheese, onions, romaine lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, garbanzo beans, red bell peppers and Kalamata olives, Bovee says.

Rotating prepared salads gives customers an incentive to check in regularly to see what’s new, she adds.

2. KEEP UP WITH THE TIMES

If the main attraction on your salad bar is iceberg lettuce with accompaniments limited to cherry tomatoes, a couple of dressings and a handful of croutons, you’re living in the Dark Ages.

“We are seeing much bolder flavors being offered in salads,” Bovee says. “There is a lot of ethnic infusion for salads, such as Greek and Mexican.”

Goat cheese and nuts appear more often on the chain’s salad bars, as do such roasted vegetables as garlic, onions, peppers and carrots.

New flavors and ingredients are far more important on today’s salad bars than they were in the past, says Michael Marks, marketing director for foodservice supplier JC Produce Inc., Sacramento, Calif.

Spring mix, romaine lettuce and baby spinach have replaced iceberg as the company’s top sellers, he says. Caesar salad, which gradually has increased in popularity, is a salad bar super star.

Aramark’s Giordano sees a trend toward mesclun mix and field greens and increased interest in prepared items like mozzarella salad and salads featuring grains, rice and couscous. In some cases, salad bars offer all the ingredients, but a worker behind the counter builds and tosses the salads, he says.

Giordano also uses more organic produce on the salad bar these days and is introducing salads with a twist, like bread bowl salads.

Metromedia’s Coudreaut notes that grape tomatoes seem to be gaining favor — and flavor — over cherry tomatoes. More colored and heirloom tomatoes also are turning up.

Scout out new ideas from suppliers, chefs, your employer and other companies, Coudreaut says. He tends to introduce new items as ingredients in prepared salads rather than setting them out to sink or swim on their own, he says. “I don’t know if I would ever put Jerusalem artichokes out, but I might do a marinated artichoke heart or a marinated mushroom.”

Finally, don’t toss out all the iceberg just yet.

“I think iceberg lettuce may be starting to come back into vogue because it adds a wonderful crunch and it’s loaded with vitamin K, which is wonderful for women,” Marks says.

Coudreaut adds, “You’re seeing a revitalization of the iceberg wedge in some restaurants for kind of a retro feel.”

3. DON’T FEEL COMPELLED TO DO IT ALL YOURSELF

Some chefs still take pride in cutting up their salad ingredients themselves, but many are turning to suppliers to bring in fresh-cut product that is clean, safe and a labor-saver.

Bryan Owens, president of Barnhill’s Steak Co., Pensacola, Fla., operator of 10 Southern-style buffet restaurants, including Western Sizzlin’ and County Fair Buffet, says the switch to fresh-cut is probably the biggest change in his operation in recent years. “We buy a lot of cut products because they are sealed, and they are fresh,” he says.

Besides the convenience factor, fresh-cut produce often looks better because high-tech machines cut much of it. “You get the exact same size every time, and uniformity is a big deal to me,” he says.

Aramark’s Giordano says about 15% of the company’s salad ingredients are precut, and he’s likely to increase that amount in the future. Fresh-cut saves labor, reduces liability, offers a consistent product and eliminates the need to constantly train new employees, he says.

“In our restaurants, we’re starting to see more (presliced) mushrooms and sliced lettuce,” Metromedia’s Coudreaut says. Broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, onions and other durable, fibrous vegetables also lend themselves well to fresh-cut. On the other hand, tomatoes, herbs or fragile fruit like strawberries do not.

Marks with JC Produce says it’s even more important to know your supplier when buying fresh-cut product because of the need to start out with safe, high-quality product.

Apio Inc., Guadalupe, Calif., recently expanded its proprietary Intellipac packaging technology to products and sizes appropriate for salad bars, says Jennifer Browder, director of marketing.

“Intellipac specialty packaging extends shelf life, maintains crispness, reduces dehydration and discoloration ... by creating an ideal modified atmosphere inside the package,” she explains.

The company’s fresh-cut product line includes broccoli florets, broccoli slaw, broccoli and carrots, broccoli and cauliflower, cauliflower florets, vegetable medley and vegetable stir-fry. Fresh-cut products are available in 12-ounce and 2- and 3-pound packages under the Eat Smart label.

Apio recently extended its Intellipac technology to a larger-sized case liner that contains 18 pounds of fresh-cut broccoli florets appropriate for salad bars, Browder says.

4. PLAY IT SAFE

With the wide range of condiments, fresh fruit and cut vegetables sitting out on the salad bar, food safety has to be job one.

“It is a huge issue, especially when we are serving the amount of people that we are,” says Aramark’s Giordano. “If we had an illness or an outbreak, we would have a big problem.”

That’s why the company is working to develop a Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point program to document temperatures and provide other safety-related data from production through presentation.

The company already monitors the temperature of its product with infrared temperature guns that don’t actually touch the food.

Everyone at Barnhill’s facilities is state-certified for handling food, Owens says. Workers follow strict sanitation proceduresincluding washing hands and wearing gloves.

Workers at Metromedia’s restaurants prepare salads in walk-in refrigerators to maintain the cold chain, Coudreaut says.

Marks of JC Produce, which is certified by the American Sanitation Institute, advises operators to check their suppliers to make sure they are just as passionate about excellence in food safety as the operator is.

5. PUT ON A GOOD FACE

Once you have the best, most flavorful product available, and you’ve given it a tantalizing presentation and kept it cold and safe, don’t blow it by failing to manicure it throughout the day.

“I don’t care how good your food is, if the eye appeal is not there, they are not going to eat it,” says Owens of Barnhill’s Steak Co.

An adequate labor force is the key to keeping the salad bar looking fresh and appealing.

At Barnhill’s restaurants, three to five bar-runners rotate product, clean the bar and maintain a fresh, appealing look. A manager is assigned to oversee the operation, help the runners and maintain the salad bar during off-hours — 2-4 p.m. — when there are no runners on duty.

Coudreaut of Metromedia says he encourages workers to look at the salad bar from the guests’ perspective. “People eat with their eyes first,” he says. “If an area is filthy or in disarray, there will be rejection.”

In the chain’s larger restaurants, two employees typically are assigned to the salad bar. One makes up the salads in the walk-in refrigerator while the other wipes down the salad bar and interacts with guests. Coudreaut encourages the salad bar attendants to look as sharp and tidy as the salad bar itself.

He suggests they put out vegetables in small quantities and replenish them regularly rather than place a lot out at once and let it sit around for hours.

The salad bar also must be well-organized with items situated in a logical sequence and colors attractively dispersed, adds Giordano of Aramark.

In an increasingly health-conscious society where consumers are more determined to make their own decisions, operators seem to agree that the popularity of salad bars has nowhere to go but up.

“I think people just like to play with food,” Coudreaut says, “and they enjoy being in control of their own experience.”