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Souper pairs

Partner soup with a compatible sandwich, salad, or appetizer and it can turn into a profitable marriage. No matter how you sell soup, don't sell it short. There's surprising depth in those steamy crocks. Soup is so familiar, so elemental, customers are almost predisposed to accept it. All it needs is a chef's handiwork to make it special. And just as a rising tide lifts all boats, a soupy swell boosts other menu items. Pairing a signature soup with a sandwich, salad, or small plate helps introduce customers to a new item or breathe new life into an established one.

That's why operators in all segments are varying the soup-and-sandwich routine with new marriages. In quickservice and midscale operations, they take the form of twists on the combo meal and soup-and- salad bar; in more upscale segments, they range from signature soup samplers, to whimsical soup pairings, to soup "shot bars" at catered events.

Marlin Kaplan is well versed in the power of soup. Over the past year or so, the executive chef-owner of One Walnut, an upscale restaurant in Cleveland, has seen his Grilled Cheese of the Day with Tomato Soup ($9.50) become the second best-selling item on the lunch menu.

Kaplan's combo is typical of the twists on comfort food that dot his menu. He begins his tomato soup in conventional fashion, sweating onions and garlic, adding whole pear tomatoes and chicken stock, stirring in a little sugar to tone down the acidity, and simmering and pureeing it all. But then he adds an ingredient that's something of a mystery -- bechamel. The milky roux-based sauce thickens the soup like cream, but it also contributes its own subtle nuance. "It adds a little nutmeg flavor, but you can't quite tell what it is," says Kaplan.

By his own reckoning, Kaplan has paired the soup with at least 150 different grilled cheese sandwiches over the past year. Recent versions include Swiss cheese, prosciutto, asparagus, and peppers on grilled Asiago bread; and blue cheese, seared beef sirloin, and oven-dried tomatoes on challah.

Recognizing that a little crunch goes well with soup and a sandwich, Kaplan offers house-made Sweet Potato Chips as a $2.50 add-on that helps increase the check.

The combo is "probably the least expensive item on the lunch menu," says Kaplan, who also offers the likes of Lobster Macaroni and Cheese ($13) and Roasted Chicken Nicoise Salad ($14). "Our customers could afford to spend more for lunch, but they choose this because it's imaginative and flavorful."

Aiming a soup-and-sandwich combo at a more cost-conscious customer is executive chef Wilson Legra of the Gordon Biersch brewery-restaurant in Miami. His daily Brewer's Lunch of soup and a baguette sandwich, priced around $6.95, is one of the most affordable options on a menu that prides itself on sophisticated, chef-driven cuisine. "It's a nice light lunch at a good price," says Legra, "and a way for us to reach everyone from secretaries to executives."

The soups vary, but Legra's frequent choice is Beer Cheese Soup, obviously apropos of the concept. "I use it once or twice a week, because people really like it," he says. It's a creamy concoction with a base of sauteed vegetables and roux, plus cheddar and pepper jack cheeses and cream. He adds suds, too, -- either the smooth, auburn Marzen or the dark, malty Dunkles -- or perhaps a seasonal ale, if one's on tap. Legra adds it toward the end of cooking so that the flavor isn't simmered away.

The accompanying baguette sandwich is "nothing fancy," typically turkey or ham, plated alongside a salad of baby greens with beer-spiked salad dressing. All told, Legra moves about 50 combo orders per week. One of the benefits of the combo lunch is that it speeds ticket times. "It helps get them in and out."

If one soup is good, four is better. That's the logic that chef and co-owner Charlie Purcell applies at the Boathouse Bar & Grill in Wauconda, IL. The Soup Sipper ($4.50), a sampler of four soups served in 2-oz. ramekins, is a popular starter at the casual American grill.

About a quarter of Boathouse guests opt for the Sipper. "It's a good choice for those people who can't decide on an appetizer," says Purcell. Four soups may sound like a lot of work for a single menu item, but as Purcell says, "It's a signature for me. I guess I have a knack for soups."

Three of the Sipper's choices change weekly, rotating through a list of 20-odd recipes. But there's one constant: Purcell's Tomato and Blue Cheese Soup.

According to Purcell, the unorthodox addition of blue cheese to tomato soup creates a velvety texture and a haunting flavor. "If you didn't know what it was, I'm not sure you would be able to pick it out," he says. "Even people who don't like blue cheese like this soup. It mellows out the acidity of the tomatoes."

Before a lot of today's chefs and customers were born, R.J. Grunts in Chicago was putting out steaming crocks of soup on what Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises bills as "the original" salad and soup bar. It dates back to 1971, when theme restaurant guru Richard Melman opened the casual neighborhood restaurant with the bar and gourmet burgers as co-anchors.

Today, the 50-item bar includes two soups of the day. It's available by itself, priced at $8.95; with any appetizer for $11.95 ; and with any item except an appetizer for the price of the item plus $4.50. "About 40%-50% of our customers order one of those variations," says Marc Jacobs, area supervisor for LEYE. That adds up to 300-500 salad-and-soup bar orders on a busy weekend. "It's a big part of our business," he says.

There's typically a cream-based soup and a broth-based soup each day. Popular flavors include Chicken Noodle, Cream of Potato, Cream of Wild Rice, Chicken Enchilada, Broccoli Cheddar, and Mushroom-Barley. Throughout most of Grunts' history, they have been made fresh daily. "We tried canned soup once, and people knew it right away," says Jacobs. "So we now make it fresh."

Beginning its first winter, Grunts has offered Temperature Soup as consolation for the arctic blasts Chicagoans endure. The deal pegs the price of a cup of soup to the lakefront temperature. At press time, an early-season cold snap had dropped the price of soup to 24 cents. "When it's really cold, it's nice to have a cup of soup for 10 cents or 14 cents," says Jacobs. On a recent day, the eatery sold 60 Temperature Soups out of 150 total covers.

For sheer numbers and variety of soups, the champions are the salad-bar chains. A prominent example is Souper Salad, a 10-unit chain based in Newton, MA. It offers four signature soups each day -- New England Clam Chowder, Triple Boost Veggie, Grandma's Chicken Noodle, and French Country Chicken Stew -- plus three or more daily selections chosen from a rotating repertoire that stretches into the hundreds. They're priced at $2.79-$4.79.

Although the classic soups have enduring popularity, customers are increasingly interested in unusual creations like Philly Cheesesteak Soup, Mexican Tortilla Soup, and Baked Potato Soup, just as they increasingly favor field green salads over traditional iceberg and romaine salads, according to director of marketing Jim Miller. "We've been in business for more than 27 years," says Miller. "That makes people inclined to try something different when we come out with it."

Souper Salad features combo meals with the chain's proprietary Walkabouts -- pita breads filled with salad ingredients -- priced at $4.09-$5.29. They come in such variations as Buffalo Chicken, Caesar with Chicken, and Tuna. And like R.J. Grunts, in the winter the chain runs a promotion called Soup For Cents, which bundles a soup with a salad or sandwich priced at whatever the mercury reads.

If you're going to sell a bowl of soup for $11, it had better be a heckuva soup. That's intuitive knowledge for Michael Reidt, executive chef of the hot Miami restaurant Wish. "You've got to add an ingredient that will catch their attention -- like shrimp, lobster, or a specialty mushroom," he says.

Among his creations is Tomato Watermelon Gazpacho ($11), made with chunks of watermelon for "its sweet, fruity flavor" and pineapple juice for "a more delicate acidity" than citrus juice. He also reinvents vichyssoise, enlivening the chilled potato soup with diced fresh avocado and Brazilian-style smoked shrimp.

Reidt is also known for whipping up combo plates with soup and a companion item. For instance, his mushroom soup and potato salad pairs a shot glass of wild mushroom soup, made from black trumpets and chanterelles, with a potato salad made from cubed potatoes -- half of them poached and half deep-fried -- shaped in a ring mold and presented on a large oval plate.

His kabocha squash soup and scallop tartare combo mates a coffee cup of kabocha puree alongside a fresh oyster on the half-shell topped with raw scallop, creme fraiche, and osetra caviar.

For parties of 100-200 people, Reidt likes to set up a soup bar serving blended-to-order soups in shot glasses. "It's cool, Miami being such a club town," he says. The setup is simple: several pots of vegetable purees and vegetable broth over portable burners. "People pick a flavor, we toss a ladle of puree and broth into a bar blender and buzz it up, and there it is -- soup to-order."

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