Grocery Girl: Salad Bars Make Me Happy

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My life just got a lot better. Or at least the lunch-eating part of my life.

One day, I will be organized enough to pack lunch from home. Leftover barley mushroom soup? Yum. But because brown-bagging is still but a fantasy, and my office is inside a great grocery store, I am a big prepared foods customer.

I think my employer, a great New York grocery store, rocks. The olive oils! The cheese! The totally reasonable prices! But until last week, the lunch options left a lot to be desired. I was in a soup and sushi rut. Sometimes I'd pick up a pre-packed salad, the greens going a little limp, the chicken dry as cotton.

At least I work amongst a collection of banging vinegars, olive oils, and condiments with which to spruce up an otherwise lackluster salad or sammy. Umbrian Terre Rosse has been making an appearance on my salad all week. It's so green, it looks like fresh cut grass. And tastes a bit like it, too: fresh, herby, and briny. Belberry Black Currant Vinegar is another salad magician. Nectar!

Our fridge is stocked with samples of Sicilian pesto, corn and jalapeƱo salsa, grainy mustards, chili sauces to kick your butt, tapenades galore. It's where sandwiches go to get top-notch makeovers. But they'll be needing less fussing with to reach levels of mere palatability.

A Much Needed Upgrade

After a few weeks of duct tape on the floors, of mock-ups and plans, a shiny new salad and sandwich bar stands proudly in my store. You can get a fluffy roll or a crusty baguette, roast beef, pepperoni, horseradish sauce, aioli, red onions. I can put whatever I want on my salad.

Go crazy with creamy cubes of tofu, balsamicy chicken, avocado, sweet peppadew peppers, sun-dried tomatoes, crunchy sesame sticks, blue cheese—whatever your heart desires.

And since my heart tends to desire everything, I usually end up with a giant salad. It's been one week, and I already have a "usually."

Grocery Chains with Salad Bars That Make Me Happy

I have been known to spend unseemly sums of cash on a trip to the Whole Foods salad bar. A little this, a little that. Some poached salmon, some grains of paradise salad, some roasted sweet potatoes, some eggplant, some garbanzos. I leave with a heaping and hugely expensive pile of food.

Whole Foods has their prepared foods down to an art. Pricey, indeed. But the adorably thin-crust pizzas, the little sample-cups of flank steak, the gelato extravaganza, the Indian foods and soul foods and a whole dessert "bar"—it all makes for an impressive spread. It's a bougie food court on steroids. I can't help but love it.

They're not the only prepared food rock stars. Wegman's also has their prepared foods ducks in a row. I'm not a fan of the greasy Chinese, but they have so many other good choices, and for a fraction the Whole Foods price, and classy little "cafes" in which to chow down, flower-filled vases and all.

Plenty of other grocers are upping the ante. Beige-blah piles of mystery stuff on hot plates are making way for fresher ingredients that taste totally decent, or even better. Prepared foods are big money-makers. You can only charge so much for a carton of eggs. But hard-boil them, mix in some mayo and you've got yourself an egg salad your customers will shell out much, much more for.

The food snob in me feels like prepared foods are for suckers. But here I am, patronizing that section more than most others (and carting home a rotisserie chicken for dinner). How do you feel about grocery store prepared foods?

About the author: Hannah Howard is a restaurant professional turned grocery girl. She loves pickles, recently returned to New York, and has a new baby blog.

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