Are Salad Bars Healthy During The Coronavirus?

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 frantic 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 foodservice chains, which eats into profit and cedes control.

“It’s 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. While they're still very lucrative, sales by volume have been declining for several years, according to data-tracker IRI, as salad-centric restaurant chains, like Sweetgreen, Chopt and Saladworks, have expanded and lured away some of that kale-loving crowd. Even before the pandemic, some grocery-store shoppers considered salad bars unhygienic. (Sneeze guards can only guard against so much.)

Now they 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 what to replace them with?

“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.