Salad Days

                                                                                                                  Photography by Ferris Kaplan

By Helen Mitternight

When you think of Southern food, it’s probably deep-fried or barbecued. You probably don’t think of salad.

But Verde owners Jennifer and Sam Ferrebee wanted to sell healthy food like they found in their native D.C. area, and they were determined to bring that food to Charleston.

“I knew it would work,” Jennifer says. “I lived here, and I wanted that food and I had friends who wanted it – professionals who are too busy to cook but still want to eat healthy. I mean, look at the (Ravenel) bridge every Saturday! A billion people are walking and doing outdoor stuff.”

Seven years ago, anyone who wanted a salad either went to a sit-down restaurant or bought salad by weight at a grocery store.

“I hate salad by weight because I love cauliflower and it’s heavy,” Jennifer says.

Their venture paid off and, today, Verde has four locations in addition to its original King Street store: Avondale, Mount Pleasant, Belle Hall and south Charlotte, N.C.

The stores offer salads that are fresh, seasonal, made to order – and not sold by weight. At King Street, the store is part of the lunch rounds for students and downtown retailers.

Jennifer’s family was shocked when, with no food and beverage experience, she decided to switch from a focus in hospitality to salad.

“After we were visiting D.C., a lightbulb went off,” she says. “I literally wrote the business plan on the car ride home the next day. I called my parents on that car ride and said I wanted to open a restaurant selling only salad, and they were like, ‘What did you DO in D.C.? Are you SURE?’”

Her conviction convinced the family, and it was her stepmother who came up with the winning name for the new business.

“We were at the beach with the family and had probably 100 names,” Jennifer says. “My stepmom wrote ‘Verde.’ We talked with Jay (designer Jay Fletcher, who did the Verde logo) and two names stood out: Verde and Graze. We googled ‘Graze,’ and they were just about to open so it had to be Verde. It’s a name that just works on so many levels.”

Jennifer says she made almost every mistake one could make in Verde’s first year – in fact, Sam kept his day job at Wild Dunes and did double duty until they were sure the business would succeed. Jennifer says she’s just glad the community was forgiving, adding with a laugh, “When I think about how we operated the first year, I wonder how we stayed open. We are so much more efficient now. I think when you are opening a business, your every day is the learning curve of what most people learn in six months. It’s fast.”

Part of Verde’s success is its menu, and Jennifer credits Sam for that, saying he has a gift for creating menu items, but she also says she and her employees sometimes create something just because they like a name they’ve come up with. That’s the case for the “Chicken Tikka Masalad,” debuting in January, that brings Indian flavor to the salad bowl.

“We did a tasting for it. It’s so good,” she says.  

In addition to seasonal salads with funny names, being good to the environment is part of Verde’s DNA. Jennifer says Verde was one of the city’s first to compost and they recycle as well. She says the circle – good food to good-for-the-planet disposal – is designed to make customers feel good about themselves.

Of course, you can certainly build something caloric at Verde if you want to.

Jennifer says a common misperception is that all salads are low-calorie. That all depends on what you put on them. But, she adds that the calories usually come from avocado or beans so even if you build a salad that’s high in calories, it’s still better for your body than lots of fast food.

The company, which has 100 mostly part-time employees, relies on its size and its relationships to be nimble. During the recent romaine lettuce recall, Jennifer says, all of the stores had romaine off the shelves and replacement varieties of lettuce on the way within two hours.

“Of course, that’s because we use Limehouse (Produce), another small, local business, so we just have to make one phone call. In Charlotte, we have one produce supplier, too, so we don’t have these giant supply chains. And everyone on our team has the ability to make decisions without having to go through long chains,” she says.

Jennifer is happy with Verde’s formula, and her next step is to build up relationships in Charlotte and grow more Verde locations there.

“We’re starting from scratch there with building relationships,” she says.

Of course, she’s been there before.

The literary definition of “salad days” is when one is young or in their prime. For Jennifer, every day is a salad day.