(Feb. 5) Three years ago, restaurant entrepreneur and developer Jeff Levine saw a widening gap in the salad-only restaurant market, as the number of health-minded consumers searching for traditional fast-food substitutes continued to grow.

Levine, a 19-year restaurant industry veteran, having founded restaurants including Lulu’s Bait Shack and Brother Jimmy’s BBQ, opened his first Salad Creations in Boca Raton, Fla., in 2005.

“I saw a need for a quick-service concept geared towards salads, and just a more healthy concept in general,” Levine said. “I was reading a lot and hearing about childhood obesity, and how the government’s getting involved. It seems like this is not just a trend — it’s going to be a change in peoples’ lifestyles.”

Customers invent their own salads by choosing from 40 ingredients, roughly half of which are fresh produce items, he said. The Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Salad Creations, which also offers 10 featured salads, fresh wraps, smoothies and soups, was an instant hit, and today — after opening 32 stores in 2007 — there are 38 locations operating.

Rapid growth is expected in 2008; there have been a total of the 94 franchises sold in 18 states throughout the U.S., Mexico, Brazil and Trinidad, said Levine, president and chief executive officer. Overall, in 2008 more than 50 stores are slated to open in Louisiana, Alabama, New Jersey, New York, California, Texas and other states, as well as locations in Dublin and Kuwait, Levine said.

Salad Creations is expanding so quickly, in fact, that Entrepreneur magazine named the chain the No. 1 salad-based franchise in its “2008 Franchise 500” rankings, based on growth and consumer preference, he said.

The nutrition aspect is a large factor influencing the chain’s popularity, but Levine believes freshness and flavor keeps customers coming back.

“Most consumers come the first time because of the perceived health benefits, but they return because of the taste, quality of dressings, and the quality of the toppings,” Levine said.

In general, salad-specific restaurants — which fit better in the fast-casual market, as opposed to the quick-service market — are expected to ring up to $330 million in sales in 2008, a 10% growth from 2007, said Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic Inc., a Chicago-based food industry marketing and consulting company that follows menu, concept and chain trends.

“They’re looking for a nicer experience, with better-quality food, that’s not handed to in you in a plastic case,” Tristano said of customers frequenting establishments like Salad Creations, Saladworks, Tossed and Salad Spinners.

Salad Creations might have seen about a 300% growth in 2007, but Saladworks continues to be the No. 1 grossing salad chain in the U.S., scheduled to net between $60 million and $70 million in 2008, Tristano said.

It is likely, however, that the rapid development among salad-focused franchises will plateau in the next few years, once the newness subsides. Future success also largely depends on the salad selections that competitors, including grocery stores, McDonald’s and Panera Bread Co., offer in the near future, Tristano said.

“Grocery stores, like Whole Foods, have incredible salad offerings,” he said. “That will put incredible pressure on this area.”