TORONTO — Tim Hortons has quietly introduced salads to its lunch lineup, following similar leafy green menu additions from rivals McDonald’s Canada and Starbucks late last year.
Canada’s largest quick serve restaurant chain debuted the new “made to order” salads this month at its Canadian restaurants: a garden salad topped by tomato, cucumber and red onion and served with balsamic vinaigrette, and a Caesar salad, retailing for $3.79 and $4.26, respectively. Customers can add grilled or crispy chicken strips to either salad for an extra $2.
The “made to order” distinction is an important one, as it highlights an effort Tim Hortons made to give customers a better view of freshly prepared food beginning in 2013, more than a year before it merged with Burger King in a $12.5-billion deal.
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Tim Hortons’ new salads are prepared fresh in the direct sight line of customers, as are its sandwiches — a potential strategic advantage over the competition. The salads sold by McDonald’s and Starbucks, which feature ingredients such as black beans, butternut squash and quinoa, are sold pre-packaged in containers, and not assembled fresh in front of the customer.
“This is about (Tim Hortons) rounding out the offer to make sure that they are being competitive on all fronts and evolving the menu just so that it suits all tastes and all needs,” Geoff Wilson, president of Toronto-based foodservice consulting firm fsStrategy. “It’s all about market share.”
But when asked about the recent salad additions, Tim Hortons spokeswoman Shannon Hall declined to elaborate.
“Unfortunately we don’t have additional details to share at this time on strategy,” she said in an email.
The chain’s seeming reticence highlights a tension about fresh prepared items in modern quick foodservice: Even as Tim Hortons might feel compelled to offer salads to keep in step with its competitors, it might not want to trumpet them too loudly. Speed of counter service and at the drive-thru window have been a critical goal of quick-serve restaurant providers in recent years, and of Tims in particular, and too long of a lineup at either end can mean the loss of a sale. The labour required to make a salad from scratch might slow down the counter service if too many people order them at once, particularly as restaurants sort out the kinks of a new, staff-prepared menu item.
“It’s not exactly a soft launch with salads, but they are not actively pushing them until they make sure they have got it right,” said Robert Carter, executive director at market research firm NPD Group.
“If you get somebody at the drive-thru ordering five of these, it’s just not going to work. (Tim Hortons) will probably roll it out across the system and see what demand is there before announcing it with any more fanfare.”
Restaurants in Canada sell about $4.7 billion in salads per year, according to NPD’s most recent data, with about $1.5 billion of those sales coming from quick service restaurants such as KFC and Starbucks. Seven per cent of all restaurant meals ordered in Canada include salad as a main or side dish.
If you get somebody at the drive-thru ordering five of these, it’s just not going to work.
While overall restaurant sales of salad have declined by one per cent in volume in the past five years, in the past 12 months salad sales at quick service restaurants have grown by three per cent, Carter said.
“To move into the salad category is basically saying we are going to steal customers (from competitors), because there is not much growth there,” Carter said.
Selling salads also helps to drive up average eater cheques in combo meals with sandwiches, he said. But even if they don’t become a high-volume item, salads confer a “health halo” to fast food purveyors, he added.
“As soon as Wendy’s and McDonald’s introduced salads, their perception of the food quality increased overall (among consumers), because they are associated with fresh, quality ingredients. In a consumer’s mind, that translates into all the other food as well.”
At the same time, salads are finicky in the restaurant world, given the limited lifespan and temperature and moisture sensitivity of fresh vegetables and fruit. “If you don’t deliver and meet customer expectations in the beginning, winning them back is going to be almost impossible.”
At its restaurants, McDonald’s Canada sells entrée Caesar, Greek and green salads for $5.49, or for $7.59 with chicken, as well as side salad versions of each. The company’s new stand-alone McCafe restaurants sell pricier varieties for $6.99 to $7.99, such as Kale & Brussels sprouts salad with mixed vegetable and Asian slaw salad with cashews. Starbucks began selling new entrée salad bowls last fall for $8.95.