More than Just Salad

It’s a resolution most of us make around this time of the year.

“Next year, I’m going to make healthier choices.”

Well, this year, I got a little early motivation for accomplishing my New Year’s Resolution, thanks to a visit to Just Salad in Chicago.

Just Salad is a healthy, organic company with locations across the world that sell – you guessed it – salad (among many other tasty dishes). A nice salad on its own is healthy enough, but Just Salad takes it one step further, by partnering with regional, organic, non-GMO farms and produce providers for its ingredients. That means the options that work for Chicago are tailor-made for the city’s three locations, just as New York’s locations have their own partners. Just Salad’s partners include Dalmares Produce and Red Hen Bread in Chicago, dairy farms in Wisconsin and a beet farm in Michigan.

“Our produce provider is just a mile away, which is amazing,” Chicago’s Team Leader, Jason Rotter, tells me. “So, if we need product, we get it quickly, within an hour.”

The phrase, “eat local” is something that has largely permeated today’s foodie culture. But it wasn’t always a part of the plan for Just Salad. It’s a concept that has evolved over time.

“Initially, they [the founders] didn’t have that part of the vision completely planned,” Rotter says. “At first it was just salad. The two founders were literally trying to fill a void in the New York market.”

During the late 2000s, Rotter says the founders, Nick Kenner and Rob Crespi, focused solely on salads, wraps and some soups. That has since expanded in order to meet the evolving needs of Just Salad’s customers. The menu now includes smoothies, juices (introduced this month), toasts, chicken and quinoa. All of the ingredients that go into these meals are displayed out in the open in the salad line. That choice of design for the restaurants is not just about aesthetics.

“As a culture, we’ve shifted from not caring about what goes into our bodies, to wanting to know everything about the food we’re eating,” Rotter explains. “You can see the product in front of you, so there’s no guessing about where it’s from or how it got there.”

Rotter likens Just Salad’s emphasis on buying local ingredients to the very first episode of the comedy, Portlandia, in which stars Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein inquire about the chicken on a restaurant’s menu:

Fred: This is local?
Server: Yes, absolutely.
Fred: I’m gonna ask you just one more time: is it local?
Server: It is.
Carrie: Is that USDA-organic, or Oregon-organic or Portland-organic?
Server: It’s just all across the board organic.
Fred: The hazelnut… is it local?
Carrie: How big is the area where the chickens are able to roam free?
Fred: I’m sorry to interrupt, I had exactly the same question.”
Server: Four acres.
30 seconds later…
Server: Here is the chicken you’ll have tonight. His name is Collin. here are his papers.

“You see them visiting the farm, making sure the chicken had a good life,” Rotter recalls. “That’s kind of what happened. They want to know that the basil we have comes from here.”

Just Salad’s basil and lettuce does, indeed, come from Chicago. The regional supplier, Gotham Greens, sits atop the roof of Method Soap’s factory on Chicago’s South Side.

At Just Salad, it’s not just about how the food makes its way to the salad bar, it’s also about how it makes its way to your table. The company offers eco-friendly reusable bowls for just $1. Customers who bring them in receive two free toppings or one free cheese each time they use the bowls. According to Just Salad’s website, the company saves more than 75,000 lbs of plastic every year thanks to its reusable bowls program.

While there’s a big emphasis on recycling at Just Salad, Rotter says there’s one thing the company is looking to throw out: the perception that in order to eat healthy and organic meals, you have to spend a lot of money. In glancing at the menu, I only saw a few items that were priced above $10.00, regardless of whether they were wraps, salads or something entirely different.

“Our whole mantra is healthy for everyone,” Rotter explains. “We’re at a price point that’s affordable for everyone from police officers and city workers – which is a big part of our demographic here in Chicago – to students and professionals.”

As Rotter begins talking about the relationships his team is building with its customers, he tells me a DePaul graduate student from Kuwait has practically become family to members of the team at the E. Jackson Blvd. location, eating at least one meal there daily. Sure enough, like clockwork, Sager Ben arrives during my interview, although Rotter jokingly announces he’s an hour later than normal.

Ben says he began eating at Just Salad in February. By November of this year, he and Rotter had become so close that Rotter invited Ben to attend Thanksgiving with his family – this was Ben’s second Thanksgiving in the United States. The feeling of friendship is a big part of the reason Ben says he walks in to Just Salad every day.

“I like the idea because it’s a healthy option,” Ben says. “I said to myself, ‘Oh, this is a good place.’ It’s very close to DePaul and at the same time it’s very healthy. So then, I started to come every day… and then I realized it’s not just the food. The people who work here, like Jason, are very amazing. He treated me very well and the people here made me feel that I am not a customer… I really felt comfortable and since then I said to myself I’m not going to change at all.”

Listening to Ben talk about the relationship he’s built with the team at Just Salad was absolutely uplifting. It was wonderful to talk with Rotter about what it means to eat healthy, and I’m a firm believer that establishing a healthy lifestyle starts with the choices you make in food, rest and exercise. But hearing Ben and Rotter both talk about the friendships they’ve formed through Just Salad serves as an excellent reminder that health is about so much more than what’s on your plate. It’s about finding ways to make yourself and those around you happy – and if that happiness happens to stem from sitting down in a bright little restaurant with some fresh basil, roasted sweet potatoes and toast from a local bakery, that’s all the better.

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