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Be a smart soup buyer

Buying soup. How hard can it be? Hopefully easier with a little help from us. We take a look at formats and forms—all the different ways soups can show up at your backdoor; how to buy the right bones if you're making your own stock; how to turn a $3 bowl of soup into a $4 bowl, a $5 bowl or a $6 bowl; plus some advice from Andrew Schnipper, CEO of Hale & Hearty Soups, a real soup-buying pro. Dive in.

Formats and Forms

All processed foods are subjected to heat in order to retard microbial spoilage and extend shelf life. Although soup formulations vary widely (from category to category and even from manufacturer to manufacturer), the application of heat invariably changes the finished product’s flavor, texture and color, and may require the use of various thickeners, stabilizers and other components. So it is the type of process—refrigerated, frozen or thermal (dehydrated has little commercial foodservice application)—that most affects the finished product’s quality.

Scratch-made soup is always going to be the “freshest,” but it’s also the most labor-intensive and the most prone to spoilage. Any soup purchasing decision is therefore a delicate balance between safety, quality, economics and performance.

There’s nothing wrong with mixing-and-matching among formats to get the product selection you want.

Refrigerated and frozen soups do best when fresh texture and flavor are important (such as cream of broccoli soup), whereas the slow-cooked flavors developed during the canning process may enhance certain soups.


Buying Bones

In an age when few operators butcher their own meat, how do you make your own stock? You buy bones, that’s how.

“It probably doesn’t make any economic sense at all,” admits Sarah Bowman, executive chef of the Miramonte Resort & Spa in Indian Wells, California, who makes all her own stocks at the resort’s flagship restaurant Brissago. “But it’s very important to me to make everything from scratch here.”

Other soup-makers combine stock-making with the judicious use of commercial bases to boost flavor and help ensure consistency. At Eddington’s Soup & Salad House, a seven-unit chain in the Minneapolis-St. Paul, 40- to 90-gallon batches of top-selling soups like Boundary Waters Wild Rice, Wisconsin Cheddar Cheese and Kloski Chicken Noodle are based on a combination of homemade white poultry broth, a commercial chicken base, and additional herbs and spices to create a versatile soup starter. “Even though we’re making a lot of soup, it’s just not practical to make stock from scratch,” notes general manager John Green. “This method gives us the best of both worlds.”

If you’re determined to start with the bones, here are some points to keep in mind:

  • Be flexible; price will depend on what is available from your purveyors.
  • If possible, receive bones in smaller pieces and/or cracked; not only will they be easier to store, but they’ll also render their juice and flavor more quickly.
  • If possible, specify bones from younger animals, which have more cartilage—the best source of gelatin—in their skeletons.
  • Ask for bones that contain a higher proportion of soluble gelatin (such as knuckles, shank, neck and feet), in order to produce a more full-bodied stock; skin can also be an important source of gelatin.
  • The more meat scraps on the bone the better; fat, however, will produce more grease and impurities.

Turn a $3 bowl of soup into a...

$4

  • Drizzle any soup with infused oil.
  • Upgrade crackers to something more distinctive: a Parmesan tuile or breadstick.
  • Complementary bread, such as cornbread with a Southwestern bean soup.
  • Float chopped nuts or spicy pepitas, diced red and yellow peppers or other colorful garnish on top of soup.
  • Offer interesting servers: miniature iron pots, Chinese-style lidded bowls and spoons, or colored glass bowls.

$5

  • Add a hearty accompaniment, like two pierogies with a serving of borsht.
  • Make soup part of a larger presentation, such as a vegetarian panini with an espresso cup of golden tomato gazpacho.
  • Add tableside flair—for instance, “deconstruct” a fish soup so that the server sets a bowl containing the cooked fish in front of the diner, then pours the stock from a teapot or ladles it from a tureen.
  • Offer garnishes carousel with croutons, grated cheese, crumbled bacon, etc.

$6… or more

  • Serve soup in an unusual, edible container—a hollowed-out seasonal vegetable or the sturdy shell of a round cheese, which will melt and add to the flavor.
  • Offer different portion sizes for to-go sales, including larger-size containers to feed two or more.
  • Garnish a soup with crabmeat, small poached shrimp or cubed lobster.
  • Serve a trio of complimentary soups in small cups on a single tray.
  • Consider a soup buffet at lunch, with several different daily soups with bread and crackers.

Soup Talk

Andrew Schnipper sells a lot of soup. The CEO of Hale & Hearty Soups in New York City presides over a 10-year-old company that’s grown to 17 locations. With a central cook/chill facility, the company produces more than 100 different varieties of soup from scratch, which anchor a menu that also includes sandwiches and salads.

Your top-selling soup?
Chicken vegetable, which you can order with noodles, couscous or plain.

What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about soup?
Basically, it’s a very traditional category. Classic favorites like cream of broccoli and chicken noodle are favorites for a reason.

Any important trends?
Combo meals have become verypopular.

How is your soup served?
We have four different-size containers: small (8-oz.), medium (12 oz.), large (16 oz.), and 32-oz. quarts, which are basically for take-home.

How about packaging?
We use custom-printed heavy cardboard soup cups with white plastic lids that fit very tightly. You have to be careful with paper lids because people usually grab the containers from the top and they can get crushed or leak. We’d like to use transparent lids so that you can see the soup inside, but we have the same issues with those. We’re always looking at other container options but you have to be careful. Two 16-oz. containers from two different companies can look very different in size.... Customers will pick up on that and think that they’re not getting as big a portion. The other thing is, prices of containers are skyrocketing because of the situation with oil prices.... If you have the resources and the space to lock in a decent-size inventory, you probably should.


Trends: Knowing what sells so you know what to buy 

Variety is the spice of soup: “People want to know what’s on the soup menu, and that dictates where they will decide to go for lunch,” says Steve Woodside, senior brand manager foodservice, who handles soup brands for H.J. Heinz Co. That’s why soup-of-the-day rotations are growing more commonplace.

Hello, combo meals: Soup is the next “side salad.” “Soup in a combo meal adds an element of heat, texture and value,” notes Kim Cupelli, manager, Group 57 Customer Marketing, part of Heinz. And you can get a higher price for a soup combo because it has greater perceived value than other sides.

Naming names: Grilled Chicken & Corn Chowder, Philly Cheese Steak Soup, Poblano Corn Chowder, Rustic Beef & Mushrooms with Cracked Peppercorns. Take a cue and call out the ingredients, technique and origin to help soup tell a better story. 

Going veggie: Soup appeals to vegetarians and meat eaters alike. That’s one of the reasons more restaurant operators are using soup to meet the dietary needs of their customers.

Ingredients on parade: Mushrooms, cheese, crab and lobster, French lentils, heirloom tomatoes, asparagus, unusual spices and seasoning: customers want these and other upscale and specialty ingredients.
All year round: Yes, there’s seasonality, but a lot of the old peaks and valleys have leveled out, and today 44 percent of soup consumption takes place in the spring and summer months, according to Heinz.


Stock in Trade

Stocks and bases are one of the essential building blocks of great soup, whether you make your own or buy a value-added or ready-to-use (RTU) product.

You can make your own stock, but many operators are turning to commercial bases to save labor, control costs and ensure consistency.

Stock is the strained liquid made from cooking vegetables, meat or bones and meat trimmings, and other aromatics such as herbs and seasonings. For brown stock, the bones and vegetables are roasted or caramelized before they’re cooked; for a white stock, the ingredients are simply simmered “blond.” Classical stocks are not salted, so that they can be used more flexibly. Broths, a.k.a. bouillon, on the other hand, do contain salt, and can be used as-is.

Stocks and broths are available canned or packed in aseptic blocks, concentrated, frozen and dehydrated as powder or cubes.

Bases are highly concentrated flavor pastes that contain meat and juices, combined with salt, seasonings and other enhancements. When you add water to a high-quality base (usually, 5 gallons of water to 1 pound of base) and simmer it for a short time, you create a stock. Most paste bases have a recommended shelf life of up to a year before flavor is affected.

The segment is very price-driven, according to Douglas Takizawa, president of Savory Creations, which introduced a shelf-stable liquid broth concentrate into foodservice several years ago—and indeed, most manufacturers offer a number of different “tiers” of bases, geared to operators with a variety of cost concerns, from value-conscious to fine-dining. In addition to new flavor profiles gaining steam, one of the other big trends in broths and bases is “clean label,” meaning that attempts have been made to reduce or banish MSG and other compounds (such as hydrolyzed vegetable protein) that contain MSG. Low-sodium varieties are also becoming increasingly popular, and available.


Packing Heat

With about 25 percent of foodservice soup sales actually consumed off-premise, takeout packaging is an important consideration. More than many foods, soup can be downright dangerous to carry, and it demands sturdy, insulated, leak-proof disposableware.

It’s not a purchasing decision lightly to be entered into. The Omnibus Survey commissioned by Dixie Foodservice in August 2004 revealed that more than 60 percent of consumers had recently experienced various packaging-related problems with a takeout meal, ranging from leaky tops to containers that couldn’t be reheated.

Additional things to look for when purchasing takeout packaging for soup:

  • Insulation properties that maintain heat but keep the cup or bowl safe to handle when filled with hot soup
  • A tightly fitting lid that doesn’t leak or melt
  • Durable construction and material, preferably with a textured surface that’s easier to grip
  • Ability to customize the container with your logo, image, etc.

Soup sellers recommend testing products in real-world scenarios: Put soup in a container and see how long it takes to cool off; grab it by the lid with some force; drop a closed, filled container from three feet above a desk; see what happens when you put three or four containers in a takeout bag. And, speaking of bags, these need to be sturdy and well-designed as well.

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