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Why salad bars may never come back

By Nathaniel Meyersohn, CNN Business

It was never the fanciest meal and wasn’t always the tastiest. But in the before times, lunch at the grocery store salad bar was a quick and convenient stop for people who were in a rush or had run out of other ideas.

Now, it’s looking like the salad bar lunch may have disappeared for good.

Wegmans has no plans to reopen salad bars, although it has reopened its self-serve wing bar at three stores. Stop & Shop is keeping salad bars closed even though it plans to reopen hot bars and wing bars later this month. Hy-Vee’s salad bars are also still closed.

Grocers and analysts say a combination of factors has kept stores from rushing to bring back their salad bars: Customers are now buying more groceries online and working more from home than they were before the pandemic, reducing the need for quick mid-day trips to salad bars. Some customers have also moved away from them out of sanitary concerns.

Prior to the pandemic, salad bars and other prepared foods were becoming more important for grocers because they drove customers to shop in person, said Scott Mushkin, a retail analyst at R5 Capital. For salad bars to work, though, customers need to quickly use them or the food quality will deteriorate or spoil. Grocers don’t want to serve food they can’t sell, so they’re keeping them closed and dedicating the space to serving more pre-made lunches and dinners. Some are turning the space into staging areas for workers to prepare customers’ online grocery orders, he said.

“There’s not a huge amount of customer comfort from a sanitary perspective,” Mushkin added.

Giant Eagle plans to re-introduce salad bars to a limited number of stores in the coming weeks, but has removed them at other stores and replaced them with grab-and-go and ready-to-eat meals, said Jannah Jablonowski, a spokesperson for the chain.

“Throughout the pandemic, [we’ve] seen a significant shift in the shopping habits and prepared food preferences of our customers,” she said in an email.

Stew Leonard’s, a grocery chain in the Northeast, shut down salad bars last spring and has found that pre-made salads are selling better than salads from the bars once did.

“Customers like to just buy a chicken caesar, Greek, garden, cobb salad and go. We do all the work for them and they seem to love it better than the bars,” said CEO Stew Leonard. The chain is also selling pre-packaged olives and Leonard said those products were performing better than olive bars before the pandemic.

Whole Foods said on its website that many locations have “reopened previously closed self-serve offerings.” The company did not respond to request for comment on whether this includes salad bars.

Bristol Farms in California is an exception. It has reopened its salad bars, said Neil Stern, CEO of the chain’s parent company Good Food Holdings.

But Stern said traffic was lower than it was before the pandemic. He attributed this to fewer occasions for shoppers to use salad bars because they are working more at home.

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