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Rise & Fall of the Salad Bar

Typical Salad Bar

SOME BACKGROUND

Nice salad choices!

Once upon a time – not so terribly long ago – salad bars were everywhere.  They were found in lowly high school cafeterias, corporate lunchrooms, fast food restaurants, high-end steak houses, and more.  Likely to have evolved from the smorgasbord-gone-American style, salad bars were originally an all-you-can-eat affair. They have come a long way since then. But who is credited with the origination of this brilliant idea?  Well, it all depends on your source of information.  Various sources on the Internet claim different names and locations.

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FROM WHERE – AND WHOM – DID SALAD BARS COME?

Spinach and LOTS of vegetable choice to add to it

Some say it was Norman Brinker, originator of the famous Steak & Ale chain, who also launched Bennigan’s Tavern and Chili’s.  Some give the credit to a restaurant called The Cliffs in Springfield, Illinois during the 1950s.  They made the claim to being the originators of the “famous salad bar.”  And then there’s Chuck’s Steakhouse (founded circa 1959) in Waikiki.  And, of course, the list would not be complete without the Chicago, IL competitor: R.J. Grunts restaurant.  It launched in 1971 with a salad bar containing 40 items!  Certainly, there are more restaurateurs and restaurants who would lay claim to that fame by stating: “Hey, I was first!”

For my money though, I am placing my bet on a restaurant right here in the Badger State: The Sky Club, in Plover, Wisconsin.  (Happily, their “world famous Salad bar is now open again!“) Their website states that the Sky Club is Home of the first EVER salad bar 1950″
…it all started here!! provided the first salad bar, way back in 1950.  That salad bar was designed and built by Russell Swanson of Swanson Equipment in Stevens Point.

Norman Brinker was certainly a key player when one considers his contributions to more casual dining.  But no matter who actually started the ball rolling, starting in the 50s, the 60s, 70s and well beyond, salad bars became an important part of America and its restaurants.  By the 1990s, the salad bar – according to an article in the New York Times – became “cheap, convenient and with something for everyone.”

WHAT ITEMS CAN USUALLY BE FOUND IN A SALAD BAR?

Salad bar in a grocery store

Depending on the location, offerings could be as simple and basic as chopped romaine or iceberg lettuce, cherry, or other tomatoes, sliced bell peppers, shredded cheddar cheese, and maybe cooked bacon crumbles.  High-end restaurants often offer many more and oftentimes exotic choices.  A few salad bars take up an entire wall of the restaurant!

At some of the best places I have visited, restaurants offered items like: Soup, hot rolls, cottage or shredded cheese, macaroni, tuna, or three-bean salad, radishes, green peppers, onions, beets, sunflower seeds, hard-boiled eggs, pickled herring, homemade salad dressings, cherry tomatoes, broccoli, bacon bits, and more – whew!

But things were starting to change as grocery stores added salad bars. They started charging by the weight of what you selected.  That boosted profits when folks added mashed potatoes with gravy, mac ‘n’ cheese and the like to their containers.  That bright and shiny image of the salad bar became a bit tarnished…

SALAD BARS AND SUPPER CLUBS

Beautiful spring lettuce mix and lots of veggie choices

Just like a claim to the first salad bar, I’m sure that the claim to the first supper club is asserted by many,  with candidates from coast to coast (again, Google will confirm any queries you might submit).  But for sure – at least IMHO –  the best candidates are right here in Wisconsin.  I have dined at numerous supper clubs here, from the southern part of the state, all the way to (almost) the northern border.  Of all of those, my favorites, of course, have been right here in Rice Lake and the surrounding area.  And they were some of the very best.

One of my other articles defined supper clubs and what they offer, so you should check it out.  Importantly Wisconsin has some of the very best candidates, many of which are in close proximity to Rice Lake.  The standard supper club fare perhaps includes a 16 oz. New York strip with the traditional sides, house salad or salad bar, relish tray, fresh bread and baked potato. According to the articles I read while researching this one, salad bars are going strong and will be around for a long time.  However, I am not so sure, as all those articles were dated circa 2016.  Really nothing since that time.

SO, WHAT HAPPENED?

Salad bar with protective sneeze guard

While I personally hope that salad bars will be around for a long, long time, at this point I am unconvinced.  What happened?  In a word?  COVID!  Although the sneeze guard (invented by Johnny Garneau for his Pennsylvania smorgasbord business) was a great boon to business, as it kept many of your “germs” from getting on others’ salads, it couldn’t stop COVID.  Starting in 2019, many salad bars started going the way of the Dodo bird.  Blame government regulations, exodus of workers from the service industry, and fear.

And, for many reasons – including the inability to keep restaurants properly staffed – salad bars have remained in hiding.  The salad bar, once the main attraction for many restaurants, and especially supper clubs, has not seen a real resurgence… yet!  An undeniably American tradition, the question is, will the salad bar make a comeback?  This writer certainly hopes so!  In the meantime, if you find one that is a true and marvelous example of the original concept, please let me know.  I, for one, love salad – especially with dinner!

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Visit Rice Lake Design Team

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We became full-time residents of the City of Rice Lake in 2021. It has been our goal and desire to contribute and give back to the City in a manner that will be as helpful as possible. It is also our goal to dedicate our efforts – and a steadily progressing and growing website – to the people and businesses of Rice Lake, Wisconsin.

Yvonne & Richard