Thursday, February 23, 2006


I was driving west toward downtown Tucson at 3 p.m., and still hadn't had lunch. My craving was for a meal that could be quick and, if possible, healthy. Speedway has plenty of fast food places. Most are chains, all of which should be---and were---uncrowded at this hour. Best, I figured, to drive few more blocks to Wild Oats. Then at 2829 East Speedway, a sign reading "Chopped" inspired me to slow down and stop.

It was clear Chopped was a restaurant that focused on salads. Despite the time of day, it was packed with patrons. I figured it to be part of a successful new chain. Healthy quick-serve restaurant concepts had intrigued me for decades. Upon walking in the door, intrigue progressed into fascination.

Directly before me were holders of cardboard menus and of golf pencils. The menus spelled out Chopped’s concept: chopped up salads customized by the ingredients you choose. Considering the myriad mathematical permutations and combinations possible, the $5.95 price was particularly enticing. In straight- forward fashion, the menu was divided into Step 1, Step 2, Step 3, and Step 4. Beneath each step were listed ingredients, each with adjacent empty boxes for patrons to check. Step 1 was "CHOOSE YOUR LETTUCE." Iceberg, romaine, spinach, and spring mix were the choices. Step 2 was "CHOOSE UP TO 5 CHOPPINGS," from 47 that were listed. Included were all the typical salad toppings plus plenty more. After opting for spinach to be my "lettuce," I checked anchovies, peppered bacon, sun-dried tomatoes, pumpkin seeds, and caramelized walnuts. Additional choppings each cost 50 cents extra. Step 3, "CHOOSE YOUR PROTEIN," offered nine more substantial toppings, each of which, if chosen, would tack on an additional $1.50 to $2.00. These were pretty basic and included grilled chicken; Genoa salami; shrimp, tuna salad and the likes. Step 4 was "CHOOSE YOUR DRESSING" with twenty choices. Cilantro and hot Thai peanut were among the more unusual. A 21st box gave patrons the option of ordering their dressing on the side after the other ingredients were chopped together.

The deal is to check the boxes then move through a quickly moving line to the cashier, passing the "choppers" enroute. The cashier takes your order and your money, then presents you with numbered table stand. Assuming a table is available---and I don’t know how this works when one is not--- you take it there. Within a couple of minutes, a server delivers your order.

Beyond the four step menu, Chopped has a menu board above the cash register. Needless to say, beverages are available, mostly sodas and beer. Soups, sandwiches, and deserts are also listed along with conventional salads for the less adventurous.

When paying the cashier, I inquired whether Chopped was part of a franchise or a chain. "This is the only one," she answered. I can only wonder for how long. Never before has a concept impressed me this much.