Death of iceberg

The tasteless crunch of pale chunks of iceberg lettuce in your restaurant salad may soon go the way of the dodo bird. Yes, friends, it's true: iceberg lettuce is doomed. This salad staple is fast being replaced by tastier, healthier and harder to spell greens like radicchio and arugula as restaurants respond to the increasingly sophisticated palates of today's customers.

Sorry, if you thought this was an environmental article about global warming and melting icebergs. It's about the death of iceberg lettuce.

Yes, as Yogi Berra put it, "The future ain't what it used to be." Nor are salads. The 100% iceberg lettuce salad is on its way to extinction. Today customers are demanding more healthy and upscale foods, including salads. The upscale fast casual restaurant chains like Panera and Cosi probably launched the trend. Now even McDonald's is serving jazzed-up salads with a blend of 16 lettuces including arugula, radicchio, baby red romaine, baby green leaf and baby spinach. Their premium salad selections include Bacon Ranch, Caesar, California Cobb, and Fruit and Walnut.

Along with white-meat chicken selections, salads have contributed to one-half of McDonald's same store growth in the U.S. since 2003.

Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, "Man's mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions." Substitute palate for mind and flavor for idea, and you have a great insight into what is happening with consumers' food and beverage preferences today. They are experiencing new flavor profiles, which have changed their expectations forever. Iceberg lettuce no longer cuts it. It's old and out of date.

And consumers changing palate aren't limited to lettuce. As Kathy Hayden, managing editor of Flavor & The Menu magazine, puts it, "Every day, we hear that consumers are becoming more flavor-savvy; they have higher expectations for the flavor of the food they buy at grocery stores, drive-thrus and fine-dining establishments... The entire industry is going upscale. We've come to expect toasted-sesame dressing and ginger-laced salads at our burger joints and top-quality Angus beef at our pizza parlors."

Don't buy into this? Just take a look at what is hot at major league baseball stadiums:

  • Baltimore's Camden Yards - crab cakes
  • Boston's Fenway Park - lobster
  • Anaheim's Angel Stadium - grilled tomato-mozzarella panini
  • San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium - "los especiales" fish tacos
  • Seattle's Mariner's Safeco Field - Ivar's clam chowder, Ichi Roll sushi, chocolate-covered strawberries, salmon sandwiches and broiled reindeer sausage served on a multi-grain roll
  • San Francisco's Giant's SBC Park - "Cha-Cha Bowl" with jerk chicken, rice, beans and pineapple

According to Elizabeth Sloan, president of the consulting firm Sloan Trends & Solutions, consumers are modestly indulging in foods with "higher levels of quality, taste, emotional resonance and aspiration." She observes that "the premiumization of American's menus is in full swing."

"A new affluent attitude, a desire for more adventuresome eating and a feeling of entitlement among overwhelmed and overworked Americans are all coming together to prompt diners of all income levels to treat themselves to premium, gourmet and exotic foods and beverages.

"While economizing elsewhere, they're allowing for modest indulgences and creating opportunities at the high-end and value-driven side of menus."

Consumers' premium, gourmet and exotic desires embrace every food category, including drinks. Here are a few examples at some of the popular restaurant chains:

  • Ruby Tuesday - Coastal Crabcake Appetizer - crabmeat, crawfish and a spicy blend of seasonings grilled and served with remoulade sauce
  • Cosi - Signature Salad - Gorgonzola, grapes, dried cranberries, pistachios and pears with mixed greens and shallot-sherry vinaigrette
  • Schlotzsky's Deli - Mediterranean Eggplant & Feta Salad - fire-roasted eggplant, crumbled feta, mixed field greens and julienne carrots tossed with creamy kalamata-feta dressing, signature black-olive tapenade, red onion and Roma tomato
  • Panera Bread - Tuscan Chicken Sandwich - All-natural pepper-mustard chicken with fragrant pesto aioli, field greens, tomatoes and red onions on Rosemary & Onion focaccia
  • Red Robin - The Banzai Burger - a gourmet burger marinated in teriyaki and topped with grilled pineapple, cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomato and mayo
  • Chili's - Lettuce Wraps - Grilled Asian-spiced chicken with carrots, water chestnuts, crispy rice noodles and toasted almonds. Served with fresh Bibb lettuce and sesame-ginger and peanut sauces for dipping.
  • Applebee's - Cuban Ciabatta Sandwich - Sliced ham piled high along with Swiss cheese, bacon and a spicy mustard sauce, topped with dill pickle slices and served on a toasted ciabatta roll.

In the food service industry, cheap, fast and easy no longer make the grade. The bar is rising rapidly, and Americans, as well as many other nationalities, are craving foods and beverages that are fresh, full of flavor, healthier, higher quality and customized to consumers' preferences.

Gourmet is mainstreaming. Just take a look at what is happening with bread. Au Bon Pain has artisan bread made with Guerande sea salt and organic flours. Panera Bread offers a dozen bread varieties including sesame semolina and kalamata olive. The Atlanta Bread Company has a line of flavored focaccia and cracked-wheat breads. Bennigan's offers white-peppered brioche, and even fast food Blimpie has a Mediterranean flatbread.

Restaurants are catering to consumers increasingly sophisticated and exotic flavor palates and desires for quality, fresh and healthy food. Sports stadiums and other destination facilities are catering to this sophistication of consumers' preferences. To stay relevant and continue to attract guests, location-based entertainment venues need to hop on the bandwagon and understand that iceberg lettuce, and many other foods like hot dogs and nachos, are fast becoming extinct.