Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Three cheers for salad!

Given that I avoid meat in restaurants and have made a commitment to eating at least 8 cups of veggies a day, you might be surprised to know that I hate salad bar restaurants. Or at least, I used to. Generally, I have found these places overpriced and more focused on pizza and pasta options than on actual salads. Recently, however, a friend dragged me to Fresh Choice, an all-you-can-eat salad bar restaurant.

Although they do serve soups, pasta, pizza, and other non-salad options, the actual salad bar is pretty extensive. And, more strikingly, they make an effort to offer local and organic produce. The labeling system is also quite impressive. Every house-made salad, like the Sesame Kale Toss offered for fall, includes a list of ingredients and icons for every common allergy, as do all the salad dressings and soups. It was easy to deduce the vegan items, vegetarian items that were still dairy free, and the gluten-free offerings. In total, they have labels for foods containing eggs, sesame seeds, sulfites, milk, honey, shellfish, pork, fish, soy, peanuts, tree nuts, and wheat.

At the start of the Fresh Choice salad bar, there is a sign stating what percentage of the day’s produce is locally-grown. I recognized a lot of produce that I’ve been seeing at the farm stand. After all, that’s what grows here! Because of their commitment to local produce, the Fresh Choice menu changes with the seasons. As a child, I remember the excitement when peaches were finally in season, or cherries, or pumpkins. And now, as an adult, I know that eating seasonally is also better for the environment and provides access to cheaper, fresher food.

In addition to the extensive salad bar, some of my favorite Fresh Choice offerings were the baked yams, the broccoli obsession salad, and the spicy curry lentil soup. The only thing they are missing is avocado! After my awesome meal, I had to wonder whether all salad bar restaurants are as progressive as Fresh Choice. So, I checked out the websites for Sweet Tomatoes and Souper Salad.

Sweet Tomatoes lists items that are vegetarian (or not) and gluten-free foods. According to a review on GlutenFreeAZ, however, Sweet Tomatoes does not label the foods within the store. Rather, they have a binder with nutritional information that customers can browse before eating. Sweet Tomatoes also makes a big deal about being a sustainable business. In fact, they have received a Green Restaurant Association Certification. Having never heard of this program, I decided to investigate. According to the press release on the Sweet Tomatoes blog, they received a two-star certification, which is based on seven areas including sustainable food.

Two stars is the lowest certification level, and to achieve that, a restaurant has to be awarded at least 10 points in six of the categories plus an additional 40 points from any or all categories. Even a 4-star certification requires a minimum of only 10 points in the sustainable food category. The points are assigned by calculating the percentage of food costs that meet certain criteria. Buying certified organic food or sustainable seafood is worth 40 points; if a restaurant spent 100% of its food budget on organic food, it would get 40 points. A small number of points are also available for purchasing grass-fed, cage-free, or hormone and antibiotic-free animal products. Vegetarian and vegan fare are rewarded with 30 and 45 points, respectively. Buying regionally can get another 20 points, while buying within 100 miles of the restaurant is worth 40 points. So, if a restaurant served 100% organic vegan food sourced from within 100 miles, it would receive 130 points. Recall that certification requires only 10.

I couldn’t find a break-down of Sweet Tomatoes’ points, but without any mention of commitment to local organic food, on their website I’m not convinced that they are doing anything special in terms of sustainable food. It’s great that they are making a commitment to reduce water usage and waste – some of the other categories within the certification, but I wouldn’t get too excited about their food.

As for Souper Salad, the salad toppings listed on their menu are rather meager. There is no mention of local or organic produce; their cheddar cheese even says it is imitation cheese. They do have icons for vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free items, and the folks at GlutenFreeAZ were pleased with their experience at Souper Salad. So perhaps this is a good option for people with food allergies, but it doesn’t offer much beyond that.

All in all, it seems that Fresh Choice is doing something novel by really committing to nutritious, environmentally-friendly food. Their practice of listing ingredients and their extensive suite of allergy icons puts the customer in control. Of course, you can still eat badly at Fresh Choice. I saw several people skipping the salad bar all together in favor of pizza, and I saw one kid with only noodles. You can also eat a healthy and wholesome meal, though, and that’s not so easy to do at most restaurants. Next time I have to chose a place to eat, I’m glad to know there is a fresh, and progressive, choice.


  1. Thank you for your interesting post. I am the CEO and Founder of the 21 Year old national nonprofit organization, The Green Restaurant Association, which provides a way for consumers to patronize businesses that have gone through a transparent vetting processing matched against a set of empirical public standards. Sweet Tomato and Souplantion both have reached 2 Star Certified Green Restaurant® Status, an accomplishment that less than 1% of restaurants in the country have achieved. All Certified Green Restaurants'® points and steps are 100% transparent, which distinguishes them from businesses that are making self-claims. Any business can make a claim regarding its food, or anything for that matter, and there is no way for a consumer to know if it is true. The only way for a consumer to know something is true is for a reputable outside organization to performs audits on a regular basis. We audit our restaurants at least once per year. To see all their points and steps, go to: http://www.dinegreen.com/customers/certification_details.asp?RestaurantID=REST11291

    There you can also click on the bottom of their Green Label to see all their steps. Even our Vegan Organic restaurants with 3 stars... or our 4 Star restaurants (of which there are only 3 in the entire country) are not perfect. No restaurant and no person is perfect on this path towards sustainability. I, personally, have a vegan organic diet, take a train to work, have one car (prius) and produce all of my home's energy via onsite solar panels... and I am far, far, far from perfect. So, I encourage you to reward those restaurants that have met the 2 or 3 Star Certification Level, because they have accomplished alot of environmental steps to get there; and their steps are real and verified versus the empty public relations claims that can come from businesses that don't open up their operations to a transparent certification process.

    Keep up your good work; and by the way, 70 to 80% of Sweet Tomatos total purchases are vegan or vegetarian.

    Take care,
    Michael Oshman

  2. Hi Michael,

    Thank you so much for your informative comment! I applaud the work of the Green Restaurant Association. Your certification program helps businesses become more environmentally sustainable and makes it easier for consumers to vote with their forks, as Michael Pollan likes to say. And thank you, especially, for the link to the points break-down. I wasn't able to find it on my own.

    Let me be clear that the focus of this blog is sustainable and ethical food, not overall environmental sustainability. I promote eating organic seasonal produce and animals that were raised as part of an integrated farming system - one in which they are allowed to engage in their natural behaviors and are fed their natural diets. I am always on the lookout for certifications that make it easier to distinguish restaurants with these products.

    At this point, a Green Restaurant certification is not sufficient to be sure that the food offered has been produced in this way. I don't mean that as a criticism; my priorities aren't your priorities, and that's fine. The purpose of your certification program is to promote overall environmental sustainability, and I'm actually quite thrilled that you included a sustainable food category!

    Sweet Tomatoes is making a commitment to being more environmentally sustainable and, as you say, offers many vegetarian and vegan options. That is an undeniably good thing. However, I will probably continue to frequent Fresh Choice because I can be sure that there are local organic options. They aren't perfect either, of course - most options are not both local and organic, and I consider seasonal a more useful metric that local. I do think that either of these options will give customers access to healthier food. For those people more concerned with overall sustainability than ethical food specifically, looking for a Green Restaurant certified business is a great way to go.

    Thank you again for commenting and for the hard work you and your organization put into protecting our environment.