Wendy's upgrading salads, but it will cost you

Wendy's upgrading salads, but it will cost youWendy's new line of salads is reminiscent of something you'd find in a far more upscale restaurant: lolla rossa lettuce, red and green romaine, spinach, and chard. But all that fancy green is going to cost you, well, some fancy green.

Denny Lynch, a Wendy's spokesman, says these greens and other vegetables, nuts, fruits, cheeses and meats are " ... ingredients salad lovers want to see in their salads," and proudly states, "we felt that if we could raise the bar on salads, we might attract customers that [would otherwise] go into the restaurant cafes and casual dining sector, as well as providing something that our existing customers like, too."

The prices, up about 25% from the chain's existing Garden Sensations line, $5.99 for a salad, wouldn't be out of place in an upscale restaurant, either.

The salads, that are available now in select markets, surely look delicious, fresh and nutrient-rich. Nearly all the ingredients are sourced in the United States -- apples from Washington, cheeses "from cheese-producing states," cranberries from New England and the Northeast, spring mix from Arizona and California -- and Lynch describes the process by which the company's suppliers deliver ingredients at the peak of freshness. The spring mix, for instance, is "is cut on the fields and cleaned and packaged right there and on its way to distribution centers in six hours." This velocity of "farm to fork," he tells me, "is a critical component of our salads -- speed to market equals freshness. We'll make the greens as real as they can be."

While this regional sourcing, which does include Mexican avocados and a few Canadian cranberries, is a boon to freshness, it's a far cry from the garden-freshness many vegetable-loving foodies have come to expect in this era of hyper-local foods. And critics say that the calorie count is a problem: with 740 calories each and almost 50 grams of fat in both the Baja salad and the Spicy Chicken Ceasar, it's a similar profile to a half-pound cheeseburger.

The cheeseburger, of course, doesn't serve the "crunchies" and the salad dressing on the side, a point Lynch emphasizes: "this allows you as a consumer more choice, and more control over the ingredients."

The prices, he says, are justified and provide the distinctive characteristics salad lovers are searching for. The company spent more than twice its usual time to survey, test market, and bring this product to its stores. "Yes, we're raising the prices, but we're providing much higher quality and ingredients -- now salad has vegetables and fruits and nuts and milk and lots of vitamins and minerals, so you're well on your way to helping your diet."

In the fast food business, it's a tough row to hoe, supplying consumers with that reliably-uniform product, instant gratification, great taste, low price, and still keep the ingredients nutritious and high-quality. More than any other fast food restaurant, perhaps, Wendy's has emphasized the nutrient quality and provenance of its ingredients (customers, Lynch said, "pay attention to the bacon, asking, 'is it center cut? Is is applewood smoked? Is it cooked in the stores? Is it microwaved?'") -- and while the bar may perhaps be quite low, it's nice to see a mainstream chain restaurant tell us, after lots of research, that customers want nine kinds of dark greens and pico de gallo made in the store.

I'm not about to run out and buy a Wendy's salad; I have a bunch of different sorts of lettuce and other green things growing in my garden, after all. But my belief is that Wendy's new offering demonstrates a subtle shift of the American taste buds from white bread closer to dark greens, and that could mark a reduction in the American waistline. That's worth an extra dollar in my book.
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