Salad Days

How Portland's Garden Bar plans to become the Starbucks of salad.

Before you see Garden Bar, you will see the line. On any given weekday, starting around noon, people begin to gather outside a small storefront opposite Powell’s Books in the Pearl. The crowd — clutches of tech workers sporting T-shirts with inscrutable logos, a fit-obsessed crowd wearing spandex pants and sleeveless tops, fashionably dressed women with dogs — sometimes stretches half a block. A first timer might assume the patient crowd was waiting for a whimsical doughnut, avant-garde ice cream or some other staple of the tourist scene. But Garden Bar is different. The prize at the end of this line isn’t Internet-hyped pizza or ramen. It’s an $11 salad.

Garden Bar is Portland’s contribution to a growing number of American restaurant chains that are updating the salad bar for the 21st century, bringing to kale and quinoa the convenience, customization and quality that fast-casual chains like Chipotle and Shake Shack have brought to burritos and burgers. With two locations in Northwest Portland, three more set to open soon downtown and in the Lloyd District, and plans to expand to 15 locations within five years, the restaurant is one of the most ambitious startups in a white-hot food sector that has seen a number of high-profile acquisitions in recent months. Fueled by a national enthusiasm for fitness and nutrition as well as excitement among investors over fast-casual concepts and salad in particular, this build-your-own-salad concept may be the new face of Portland’s restaurant scene.

While they’re far from the only Portland restaurateurs with aggressive plans for growth, Ana Chaud and Christopher Handford, who launched Garden Bar in 2014, seem to have especially good timing. Build-your-own salad restaurants are a booming national trend, and the pair are determined to grab a piece of the action.

“When it comes to restaurants, whoever makes the least mistakes wins,” says Handford.

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Eat your vegetables: Garden Bar owners Ana Chaud and Christopher Handford

Oregon’s reputation as a foodie utopia is built on the slow and thoughtful cuisine of restaurants like Higgins and Paley’s Place, which recast the restaurant as a collaboration between chefs and the farmers, fishermen and ranchers who provide the raw ingredients. Garden Bar might speak the language of the farm-to-table movement — its first location features a wall-spanning photo of a farm on Sauvie Island—but it practices modern efficiency. It is anything but slow, and each small store churns out hundreds of salads per day.

Handford says his goal is to be nothing less than the Starbucks of salad. “If you look at how Starbucks can go into a market, completely saturate it and lead the market, there’s a basic premise to that,” Handford says. Garden Bar does well in an urban setting, satisfying the businesses within five blocks, he adds. “If we saturate the market, we establish ourselves as a kind of authority. We know if we do this right, Garden Bar can be a national brand.”

The invention of the salad bar is widely credited to restaurateur Norman Brinker, who introduced do-it-yourself salad buffets at his Steak and Ale chain in the late 1960s. He later did the same at Chili’s, helping to build a national enthusiasm for salads that included the Garden Spot bars at Wendy’s and culminated in Burger King ads with model Elle Macpherson eating lettuce while wearing a leotard.

America’s salad days peaked in 1989, when 9.3% of lunch orders included main-dish salads, according to the research firm NPD Group. As salad bars became identified more with all-you-can-eat pizza joints than health, salad orders fell to 4.1% in 2000. Wendy’s ended its salad bars in 2006. But now several new restaurant chains are counting on the idea that, with millennials eating more fresh food than their parents, Americans are ready to go green again.

The national leaders — D.C.-based chain Sweetgreen, New York-based Chopt and San Francisco-based Mixt Greens — display their lettuce, spinach and various brassicas on reverently lit shelves behind the counter. They offer a bewildering variety of ingredients — jicama! quinoa! chia seeds! — and make ordering a takeout lunch feel like an event.

Sweetgreen now has 31 stores and has raised $95 million in venture funding, much of it from AOL co-founder Steve Case’s Revolution Growth. Chopt has 32 locations open or announced.

The new salad chains are riding a wave of investor enthusiasm for fast-casual — a loosely defined segment of the restaurant industry typified by chains like Chipotle, which emphasize fresh ingredients and made-to-order meals but do not offer table service. Though fast-casual currently makes up only 8% of the $466 billion restaurant industry, according to research firm Technomic, the segment grew 13% in 2014, more than three times the rate of the industry overall. Several chains, including Shake Shack and Wingstop, have had successful IPOs in the past year.

“Historically, your choices were not particularly thoughtful or high-quality, in-and-out-quickly options, or let’s go sit down and have a waiter or waitress serve us and often have to wait in a line to get in,” says David Howitt, founder of the business acceleration firm Meriwether Group and architect of high-profile sales of local chains, including Little Big Burger and Dave’s Killer Bread. The salad trend is tapping into consumers’ desires for dining options that offer better-prepared dishes than fast-food spots but that take less time than a traditional restaurant. “That didn’t provide an answer for a growing group of consumers,” Howitt says. “Now you have the opportunity to have a more convenient experience, in terms of location but also timing, but also have really great product and service.”

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{pullquote}The U.S. spends the least overall on food in the world. With the health movement we're trying to change that.     {/pullquote}

In recent years, more and more Oregon entrepreneurs have jumped on the high-quality counter-service trend. Some, like Salt and Straw, Little Big Burger and Blue Star Donuts, are upscale variations on traditional ice cream, burger and doughnut shops. Others apply the assembly-line customization of Chipotle to different cuisines: Pizzasmith, opened by the owners of Pastini Pastaria at Bridgeport Village in 2014, offers build-your-own pizzas, delivered in three minutes flat from a 700-degree oven. Some, like the fresh-pasta concept Grassa and Indian street-food joint Bollywood Theater, look like traditional restaurants with fewer employees, with the work of pouring water and setting and bussing tables delegated to customers.

“The values system and ideals of good sourcing and chef-driven food have filtered into the everyday,” says Mike Thelin, co-founder of Feast Portland and culinary curator of the under-construction Pine Street Market food hall. “People don’t just want it on Saturday night; they want it on Tuesday at lunch.”

A 45-year-old mother of two from Brazil, Chaud has an infectious smile and intense gaze and alternates in conversation between easy humor and fast-talking earnestness. She had no experience in the restaurant industry when she conceived of Garden Bar, having spent most of her career as a management consultant. “I was running other people’s businesses for many years and decided that I wanted to have my own,” she says. She did have connections with Portland’s fitness community thanks to her side line as a Zumba instructor — she still teaches two classes a week — which she has used to draw customers by inviting nutritionists and workout studios to create monthly salad specials.

Garden Bar, she says, was born from her own quest for a healthful lunch. “I was in search of something exactly like what we have and couldn’t find it. I wasn’t aware that the concept was actually well developed in different markets.” Chaud initially pitched her concept at a local tech-startup event, where it was met with little enthusiasm. “They looked at me thinking, ‘What is this crazy woman doing?’” she says.

One customer, Carmen Mesa, says she eats at Garden Bar daily. (Her salad of choice: butter lettuce, kale, cauliflower, beets, radish, hazelnuts, avocado, salami and pink peppercorn dressing). “I’ve become friends with everybody here. I love that it has a lot of variety. It’s quick and chic and new.”

She met Handford, 42 — a tall, perennially unshaven restaurateur whose easy, distracted-seeming demeanor belies a sharp attention to detail — through his wife, Molly, a professional acquaintance. A 20-year veteran of the restaurant industry, Handford had already opened two restaurants in Portland Davis Street Tavern in Old Town and Jamison in the Pearl — and was looking for a new project. He had the hands-on experience Chaud lacked.

“I had the idea of what I wanted Garden Bar to be, and when I talked to Chris, he was able to articulate it,” Chaud says. The two agreed to a partnership, with Chaud, who funded the first location in Northwest Portland’s Brewery Blocks with the proceeds from selling her home, handling the business side and Handford tackling the logistics and experience of the restaurant.

On a recent Tuesday around 11 a.m., the mood at the Pearl District Garden Bar was like the calm before a storm. Behind the counter, five employees sliced and chopped and mixed dozens of salad components in preparation for the coming rush. A line began to form around 11:30, headed by a group of seven Urban Airship employees. Food-delivery service drivers for Delivered Dish began arriving to pick up delivery orders packaged in hemispherical, compostable containers. By 12:05, the line stretched out the door and down the block. The servers snatched ingredients from dozens of gleaming stainless-steel bowls with tongs, tossing furiously to keep up with demand.

“Our biggest problem right now is line fatigue,” Handford says. It takes three to four minutes for a customer to go from being greeted to paying for the salad, but the wait in line can be much longer. He and Chaud offer online ordering through their website and are developing a mobile app to handle ordering and payment.

Chaud worked the crowd, explaining the menu to first-time diners and hugging regulars. Garden Bar offers several “chef-inspired” salads, but Handford says most customers — around 65% — opt to compose their own from the seven greens, 16 dressings and 50 vegetables, nuts, fruits, cheeses and meats on offer. “We make a bit more money off the chef-inspired salads, but we want to see customers create their own,” he says. “When you say ‘create your own,’ you’re giving the customer a sense of ownership.”

All those ingredients require a lot of prep. “It’s all day, nonstop. Once lunch is over, around three, we’re prepping for the next day,” says Packeisha Harrison, who has worked at Garden Bar since May. Garden Bar’s two largest costs are ingredients and labor, each of which Handford says he tries to keep below 30% of operating revenue. The $15 minimum wage pushed by Oregon labor activists “would be a huge issue,” Chaud observes. “I don’t see how any food-service establishment would be able to absorb this increase without raising prices.” Garden Bar offers family leave as required by law and is planning to offer health insurance benefits starting in 2016.

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Garden Bar goes through at least 350 pounds of kale every week. Two pounds of produce go into an average Garden Bar salad.

In a city known for food carts and carefully constructed artisan restaurants, Garden Bar, and its fast-casual brethren, are rewriting the rules for investing in, marketing and branding the local food experience. Chaud expects Garden Bar to bring in $1.2 million in revenue in 2015 but says the business needs more cash to keep growing. To achieve their ambitious growth goals — 15 stores open and over $10 million in revenue by 2019, and aspirations of expansion into Seattle, San Francisco, and out east — they’ll need help. This summer Chaud has sought Series A funding from angel investors, which she expects to close in September. “Right now we have 25 employees. It’s going to ramp up quickly.”

{pullquote}The farm-to-table thing is kind of cute, but it doesn't mean anything anymore.     {/pullquote}

The business model and its leadership helped sell Kevin Costello, a commercial filmmaker, to sign on as one of Garden Bar’s new investors. “The reason to pull the trigger is my confidence in Ana, feeling good about her motivations as well as her execution,” he says. “If I’m ready to eat better, it’s because I’ve avoided salads my whole life. My wife finally turned me, and then we went to Garden Bar and, immediately, I just loved the concept. I said, ‘Oh, my God, I could eat here every day.’”

Raising funds through angel investors rather than borrowing money or franchising is not uncommon for a restaurant business, but can be challenging, says Howitt, the Meriwether Group founder. “We don’t have a super-active angel network in Portland, especially on the consumer side,” he says.

Securing capital is just one of the challenges involved in expanding from a few locations to over a dozen, fast-casual experts say. Other hurdles include documenting recipes, processes and standards; securing a reliable supply chain; and hiring passionate people. “If you’re only going to use profits from existing stores to finance new stores, fast growth will be a tough road,” says Ed Gerdes, vice president of Cafe Yumm!, a Eugene-based fast-casual chain specializing in rice bowls with 18 locations in Oregon and Washington. “A complicated menu will also affect growth rate. If you have a lot of ingredients, allow guests to customize orders, and you’re building relationships directly with farmers to supply ingredients, then growth will be slower.”

So far the Garden Bar concept has been a hit with the downtown lunch crowd, despite a price point that’s much higher than those of nearby food carts and burger bars: The salads start at $9 but can easily reach $15 with the addition of premium ingredients like tuna and tempeh. Chaud and Handford say the price is worth it — and that they want to help drive the conversation about food.

“The U.S. spends the least overall on food in the world,” Chaud says. “With the health movement, we’re trying to change that. You’re spending more but you’re getting more. You’re getting healthier.”

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That kind of philosophy has been embraced by millennial consumers, “who are interested in healthier, more local and cooler options that use technology,” says Tom Gillpatrick, director of the Center for Retail Leadership at Portland State University. “Brands like Panera, Chipotle and Starbucks have focused on quality for the masses. Their prices are not so high that I’d describe them as a luxury — it’s really an affordable luxury.”

Garden Bar’s salads are also large — larger, Chaud and Handford say, than those offered by their national competitors, who tend to offer slightly lower prices. Unlike those competitors, where salads are served in takeout containers or plastic dishware, Garden Bar presents its wares to eat-in customers in bright white ceramic bowls. These make for highly instagrammable meals. (The restaurants themselves feature whitewashed reclaimed wood, subway tile and metal signage on rails implying a fictitious agro-industrial past. Handford calls it an “urban farmers market experience.”)

“Social is a big thing for us,” Chaud says. Beyond a few print ads in Portland Monthly, Garden Bar has relied on word of mouth and social media. “We don’t have a lot of dollars for marketing,” she says. “The strategy is when we get capitalized, we’re going to tighten up. We’re definitely going to work with an agency to refine our brand strategy and figure out what an ad campaign would be.”

Until then, Garden Bar’s growth is riding on a hot real estate market. Chaud and Handford say they’ve received many inquiries from commercial landlords hoping to secure the restaurant as a tenant amenity — like Starbucks, a Garden Bar could become an asset for marketing Class A properties. “The dream for developers is having a high-end coffee shop, a Garden Bar, a gym, showers and a bike room,” Handford says, in a show of confidence.

In August Garden Bar started providing all the salads sold at soccer games at Providence Park. Handford says he would like to have a store in the Portland airport soon. “Imagine placing your order on your phone while checking in. As soon as you’re through security, you pick up your salad and head for the plane.”

Garden Bar isn’t alone in its ambitions. Sweetgreen and Chopt have attracted many imitators. In New York, neighborhood delis and even Duane Reade drugstores have added build-your-own salad stations. In 2013 Subway announced it would begin serving any of its sandwiches as a chopped salad, sans bread. Chaud and Handford say they expect they won’t be the only salad game in town for long — indeed, a build-your-own salad, wrap and panini concept named Crisp opened on North Williams Avenue in late August — but don’t foresee having to go toe-to-toe with their national competitors for at least three years.

Portland “is not a very chain-friendly city,” Handford says. “It’s going to be exciting when we can actually go head-to-head against them. When they show up, it will benefit us in that there will be more people eating salads.”

More people eating salad sounds like a net positive. But the rise of the fast casual, farm-to-table restaurant also implies a certain contradiction in terms. Is something lost when the bounty and creativity that has characterized Oregon dining for 20 years can be boiled down to a stream of shredded kale in compostable plastic packages? If the best ideas from our professionalized restaurant owners look like the concepts coming from other corners of the U.S. — be it build-your-own salads, fancy hot dogs, expensive juice or new twists on cold-brew coffee — is our food culture still unique? 

Chaud and Handford are careful to locate Garden Bar in the context of the local and organic food movement. Like New Seasons Market, Garden Bar purchases its produce—avocados and citrus excepted—from suppliers in Oregon, Washington and California, and strives for seasonality. “We’ll have tomatoes for maybe three months this year, and that’s it,” Chaud says. But there are limits to their ambitions. In a perfect world, Garden Bar would have 100% grass-fed beef and 100% organic, Chaud says. “Is that viable? No, it’s not.”

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Garden Bar's Old Town location

Philippe Boulot, a French-born pioneer of farm-to-table dining who is now executive chef at the Multnomah Athletic Club, says he doubts large restaurant businesses can practice the values he helped to popularize during his 15 years at the Heathman. “The farm-to-table thing is kind of cute, but it doesn’t mean anything anymore,” Boulot says, adding: “All produce in the world comes from a farm someplace, and it goes to a table. Large companies, with the volume of business they have, would not be able to deal with a small farm. It’s ridiculous.”

Whether or not Chaud and Handford are able to turn their salad dreams into reality — and whether or not they live up to the image of farmers-market-shopping chefs like Boulot — they are representative of a new generation of restaurateurs in Portland, bringing the profit motive and professionalism to a scene renowned for a sometimes impractical passion.

In the 20 years since the locally sourced food movement began, Portland has grown by 100,000 people; the city has become more diverse but less affordable, with more businesses but stagnant per-capita incomes. Even in the current period of growth, the number of potential customers willing to spend $25 on lunch is dwarfed by the number willing to spend $10. It makes sense that today’s dining innovators are finding the slow, thoughtful and expensive style of the high-end bistros that drew many restaurateurs to the region less attractive than the more populist and potentially more lucrative world of fast casual.

In other words: If Garden Bar looks a lot like chains from elsewhere in the country, it’s because the nation’s thinking about food is catching up to our own.

“Things that were happening in Portland ten years ago are just hitting mainstream today,” says Gillpatrick, the PSU professor. “We’re a leading indicator for the rest of the country.” Americans seem to want what Oregonians are having. If local entrepreneurs like Chaud and Handford have their way, we’ll be the ones to serve it to them.

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