Salad bars aren't safe during coronavirus—but how should grocery stores use them?

In mid-May, when the pandemic seemed like maybe it was about to slow down a bit, several of the Dierbergs Markets scattered throughout Missouri decided to make the best of their then-unused salad bars, crossing off the word "Salad" on their signs, and filling the empty metal trays with pieces of candy or airplane-sized bottles of liquor. 

"We had originally put out other fresh foods, but it didn't go over so well because everyone's been stressed out," Rick Rodemacher, the store director of the Dierbergs in Manchester, Missouri, told NBC News. "A group of the employees were talking and we thought we could make good use of the empty space and make people smile if we swapped out the salad bar for one that serves alcohol."

Supermarkets Don't Know What To Do With Their Salad Bars
Credit: Juanmonino / Getty Images

Almost two months later, supermarket chains are still trying to figure out what to do with their empty salad bars—and tiny bottles of booze only go so far. According to Bloomberg, more than 90% of supermarkets have in-store salad bars, and a lot of them are still empty. "It’s a huge question, and no one really knows,” Gabrielle Rosi, a store design expert told the outlet. “You have these massive metal pieces just sitting there. It’s a big challenge.”

Some stores have either used their existing setup to display and sell pre-bagged salads and other grab-and-go items, while others have made a minor investment—about $200—to buy an Ohio company's "cold well conversion kit" that turns those shallow metal trays into small refrigerated cases. 

Meanwhile, Heinen’s is going all-in with a $35,000 robotic salad vending machine that allows customers to select from 22 different ingredients and dressings to customize their salads-to-go by using "Sally's" touchscreen. The high-dollar robot will be rolled into place in the chain's Pepper Pike, Ohio, store later this week, where she can make somewhere between 30 and 35 salads every hour. (Assuming there are still that many salad-craving customers in the store.) 

In May, analyst Anne-Marie Roerink told the Produce Blue Book that sales at self-serve stations inside grocery stores—including at the salad, soup, and olive bars—have dropped 70-80% since mid-March, and sales of deli-prepared foods are down 35-40% during the same time period. But the salad bar's appeal had started slipping, even before the pandemic. IRI previously reported that sales were down 3.5% between May 2017 and May 2018, a downturn that was partially attributed to "the rise of packaged salads [and] meal kits." 

Even as some supermarkets start reopened their salad or hot food bars—sometimes against the advice of local health authorities—handling a set of community tongs or crowding around the shredding cheese bin could be a step too far for already wary shoppers. “We really believe there are going to be customers that are never going to come back to the salad bar or any self-service stations, or even the deli,” Mike Tilden of Balls Foods Stores told Grocery Dive. “That fear is probably not going to go away until there is a vaccine, and [for some] it still may not.”

There's always "Sally" the robot, I guess.