Joe Joltin and George Chase Jr. didn't invent the concept of a chopped salad café, but they appear to be making up for lost time. The duo's local start-up, Chop It Salad Co., has gone from zero to three stores in just over a year. Two more are expected to come online soon, and as many as ten could sprout within the next year or so.
Chop It merges the familiarity of the trusty old salad bar with the panache of a franchise-ready fast-casual concept. Guests design their salads from a nearly endless selection of greens, toppings, and dressings, which are then tumbled out onto a wooden block and chopped by a staffer wielding a mezzaluna, a curved blade chopper that is rocked back and forth. From start to finish, the experience is interactive, customizable, and pretty fun to watch too.
"We wanted to provide a healthy alternative to fast foods," says Joltin, a veteran restaurant operations guy. "I have always loved chopped salads. Someone coming for lunch who only has an hour doesn't want to sit down and start cutting up a salad."
More than a novelty, chopped salads truly are better than their primitive predecessors. A consistent chop and toss means that every stab of the fork results in a perfect marriage of greens, toppings, and dressing. Knives are left in the kitchen where they belong.
A tad confusing, the ordering process at Chop It takes a visit or two to figure out. The first major choice facing diners is whether to order a "signature salad" or create one from scratch. Those well-designed house salads include familiar styles like chicken Caesar, Asian chicken, and Cobb. Go solo, and you'll be inundated with four types of fresh greens, 50-plus meat, cheese, and veggie toppings, and more than two dozen dressings.
Regardless which way one goes, the resulting creation then gets loaded into a bowl or tucked into a white, wheat, or spinach wrap. Soups, fruit smoothies, and beverages round out the menu.
Visitors to Chop It's newest outpost, located in the atrium of Eton Chagrin, will see a version of the restaurant that is significantly improved from the original in Great Northern Mall, says Joltin. Located in a typical mall food-court setting, the first Chop It is a flat, two-dimensional experience. At Eton, an island design allowed for the installation of four separate chopping stations that guests can fully circumnavigate.
"Initially, we didn't want that space," explains Joltin of the "cursed" atrium setting. "Now it's our number-one store. That move evolved us 20 steps ahead of where we would have been had we never gone there. It opened our eyes to existing outside a traditional mall food-court setting."
Joltin and Chase knew early on that they needed to offer an experience that transcends the typical grab-and-go process. Rather than slide down the proverbial chow line, guests are paired with a single staffer who takes the order and prepares the food. Each station is equipped with open cold storage for all the fresh ingredients, plus a weighty wood chopping block. Salads are assembled in a large bowl, spilled out onto the block, and reduced to fun-size bits by the mezzaluna.
"It looks cool," says Joltin, referring to the half-moon blade that appears in the company's logo. "But it's also safer, easier to use, and more consistent."
Apart from a few toppings that carry supplemental charges (some meats, cheeses, and gourmet nuts), salads and wraps cost the same regardless of composition. Guests are urged to speak up if they want more of this and less of that. Dressings, supplied by San Francisco-based Girard's, include creamy Caesar, balsamic, walnut-raspberry, and parmesan peppercorn. There are fat-free, gluten-free, vegan, MSG-free, and organic options too.
In addition to Great Northern, Eton, and SouthPark Mall, Chop It is opening outposts at Belden Village and Great Lakes malls soon. Of his fledgling company's appeal, Joltin says, "This is a fun, interactive experience. We want lettuce flying around. We want that kind of excitement."