Salad Restaurant Chains Sprouting Up Even in the ‘Fat Belt’

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Once, there were plenty of skeptics who thought that salad couldn’t be the main draw at American restaurants. After all, salad is generally listed as a mere appetizer on menus, and it’s an appetizer that many diners order because they feel like they should, not because they really want to. Nonetheless, restaurant chains with salad front and center on the menu have been growing rapidly along the coasts, and now they’re spreading to the deep-fried American heartland.

“Salad restaurants are thriving on the East Coast, but a novelty in the Midwest — what investors call the fat belt,” John. A. Bornoty, a 42-year-old entrepreneur, tells the Detroit News. “Our focus groups told us people are craving a fresh, healthy menu at affordable prices.”

During a business trip to New York City several years ago, Bornoty grew intrigued by the popularity of deli salad bars, but also sensed that the offerings and presentation were less than ideal. Veggies and lettuce weren’t always fresh, nuts and other allergens could mix easily with other ingredients, and customers were touching everything, giving the operation a messy look as well as an “ick” factor.

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In 2008, Bornoty opened a salad-focused restaurant called The Big Salad. The restaurant’s location was not, as Elaine on “Seinfeld” may have hoped, in Manhattan, but in Gross Pointe, Michigan, and the featured entrées were salads with a huge array of fresh ingredients—and where they were always created just as the customer wanted by clerks, not the germy customers themselves.

Based on The Big Salad’s success, there are now four locations in Michigan, two more opening in early 2013, and much bigger franchising plans ahead: Industry publication Restaurant News reports that The Big Salad’s goal is to have 200 locations within 10 years, all with menus boasting a dizzying variety of salads:

With three types of lettuce (iceberg, spinach and romaine), 30 vegetable toppings, 30 dressings, eight meat and seafood toppings, and eight dry toppings, there are over 17 million possible custom combinations salad chefs are able to construct for customers.

Just as important, according to Bornoty, is that the food—which includes sandwiches and soups as well as salads—is served “in an enjoyable, comfortable and impeccably clean atmosphere.”

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While the salad restaurant category isn’t particularly crowded, The Big Salad joins several other chains around the country, including Chop’t, Tossed, and Saladworks. The latter is by far the largest salad-centric chain, though it is not growing at the pace once expected. In 2010, when there were just over 100 Saladworks locations in four states, the business said it would hit 120 restaurants by the end of the year, and expand by 20 to 25 spots annually. A recent story about a new Saladworks opening in Pennsylvania’s Poconos region notes that there are currently just 104 Saladworks restaurants, though they are now spread throughout 13 states—and more than 60 units are in development.

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.