(July 3) While many in the foodservice industry have suffered from the economic downturn and skyrocketing fuel prices, Conshohocken, Pa.-based Saladworks Inc. continues to thrive.

Saladworks, which had its beginnings in 1986, as a single restaurant in southern New Jersey’s Cherry Hill Mall, reached three-digit status May 31, with the opening of three restaurants, bringing the number of franchises to 100.

Founded by chef John Scardapane, who is still owner and chairman, the soup and salad franchise, got a healthy shot in the arm in March, when Vernon W. Hill II, retired chief executive officer of Commerce Bancorp, Cranford, N.J, became part owner.

“We finally have some funds for some corporate stores, which we’ve always wanted to do,” said Joe Giannetti, vice president of franchise services. “We are probably going to finish the year with about 25 more stores.”

Giannetti said by the end of 2009, the hope is to open 75-100 more locations, with the ultimate goal of 1,000 by 2012.

“The corporate stores will be located in strategic spots. We want to keep them close to home at first, and we want to have some in the Florida market,” he said.

He said when Scardapane opened the first restaurant and wanted to name it Saladworks, the mall manager convinced him that he couldn’t make it by selling only salads. Scardapane relented, called his place Foodworks and offered pastas, sandwiches, wraps and of course salads.

“All of sudden, when he looked at the sales mix, it was 80% salads,” Giannetti said. “It was because of the way they were presented in the display case. John won the argument and changed it to Saladworks.”

For a time, the sole offering was salads, but gradually soups and other items found their way to the menu.

“When you have several people eating together and one person wants a sandwich, you still want to please that person,” he said. “We currently offer the salads and a signature line of dressings that are produced for us.”

He said there are a dozen named salads, but the top seller is a create-your-own salad, designed by the customer but built by staff member.

“When we were doing our focus groups with customers, they said they would prefer doing our kind of setup where you more or less instruct a professional on how to put your salad together,” he said. “They felt it was safer from a food safety standpoint. And it’s in a refrigerated, display case and not in an open salad bar with people sticking their hands in there.”

Giannetti said he believes the fast-casual chain has thrived in tough economic times because of its reputation for freshness and good-sized salads.

“With the fast-casual establishment you’re in and out, you can have a salad made to your liking and still pay a decent price,” he said.

He admitted that even though the chain is doing well, tough times could be just around the corner.

“Obviously, the fuel crisis has affected everyone,” he said. “How we’re getting around some of the food costs — a little over a year ago, I made our contracts for two years because I saw the writing on the wall.”

He said while some suppliers are not happy about being locked into a two-year contract. However, the suppliers could see how the company was growing.

“The only thing we have now is our growth,” he said. “They’ve seen that any numbers I’ve said we’ll do, we’ve done.”

However, he said two suppliers are insisting on three-month contracts.

“We were up for the previous 11 months, but we’re flat now and starting to curve down,” he said. “I can’t make any more two-year contracts. When I tried to renegotiate a few that were due at the end of June, they wouldn’t hear of it.”

Meanwhile, new Saladworks restaurants continue to open, the most recent at O’Hare Airport in Chicago, and another at the Sacramento, Calif., airport.

The fuel situation began to affect the Sacramento location even as it was opening for business.

“The distributor was originally supposed to deliver three days a week, and I think they’re doing only two now,” he said.

Economic woes aside, the company continues to expand its locations and menu.

“We’re going to be trying asparagus because we get a lot of requests for that, and we’re doing an avocado salad,” Giannetti said. “That has proven to be pretty popular.”

He said the basics still drive the menu.

“You still have the cucumbers and the lettuce bases, a 50-50 mix of iceberg and romaine, is still the most popular,” he said. “We’re getting more requests for something exotic, but what’s considered exotic depends on the customer you’re talking to.”