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Soup’s on

Gallons of excitement are simmering in the soup pot these days. Although a cup or bowl of soup has long been a standard menu starter, restaurants are now offering more inspired choices and many rotating selections. Soup is even the focal point for a number of concepts, with bakery-cafes a very active segment.


Those operations that employ skilled chefs tend to create their own signature soup recipes to lure customers. But to meet patrons’ higher expectations, soup manufacturers have also stepped up to the bowl, expanding and upgrading their offerings. Soup can be a significant profit center for an operation, and the higher the quality, the higher the sales. Here’s what’s cooking.

Gallons of excitement are simmering in the soup pot these days. Although a cup or bowl of soup has long been a standard menu starter, restaurants are now offering more inspired choices and many rotating selections. Soup is even the focal point for a number of concepts, with bakery-cafes a very active segment.

Those operations that employ skilled chefs tend to create their own signature soup recipes to lure customers. But to meet patrons’ higher expectations, soup manufacturers have also stepped up to the bowl, expanding and upgrading their offerings. Soup can be a significant profit center for an operation, and the higher the quality, the higher the sales. Here’s what’s cooking.

Soup trends

  • From-scratch quality. Fresh, market-driven ingredients and precise timing are priorities for creating consistently first-rate soups in both restaurant kitchens and R&D kitchens. The best bowlfuls boast a good proportion and size of particulates (vegetables, meat, seafood, herbs, etc). Vegetables should be vibrant in color and cooked “al dente” so they don’t lose their crispness when the soup is reheated or held for service. The industry trend is away from canned products and toward freshly made, ready-to-serve soups or concentrates packed in cryovac bags. These go from walk-in or freezer right into boiling water to maximize flavor and texture and minimize waste.
  • Accent on flavor. Complex, more sophisticated flavors are on the rise—many with Asian and Latin notes. Under its Stockpot brand, Campbell’s offers authentic Vietnamese Pho, for example, and Kettle Cuisine has a Coconut Curry Chicken Soup. “Operators are asking for unique flavors and layers of flavor to differentiate their menu,” says Pat Brockie, national sales manager for Norpac. Norpac’s new additions, such as Fire Roasted Tomato Ancho, Kickin’ Pepperjack Broccoli and Savory Bean with Black Forest Ham exemplify this trend.
  • Health as an ingredient. “We’re seeing more interest from chain restaurants on sodium reduction,” reports Tom Frain, Sr. Research Chef for Campbell’s. Operators are also seeking out more vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options, in response to customer requests. Soup companies are listening by developing products that fit these criteria or identifying current varieties that can be labeled as such. Whole grains like quinoa, farro and barley are also entering the mix, and variations on lentil and bean soups are increasing—all of which add needed fiber.
  • Value solutions. In this economy, restaurant kitchens are looking for creative ways to extend one product, says Frain. “They want us to develop recipes off one SKU, such as several variations for cream of potato soup,” he adds. Marian Passadore, head of value-added marketing for Norpac, agrees: “There’s a trend to reduce the number of products in the back of the house and add those that lend themselves to multiple uses. Soups that can be cross-utilized as pasta sauces or menued in more than one way are in demand.”
  • Comfort with a twist. Comfort foods surge in popularity during times of economic stress, and soup is right up there. “Creamy, regional American varieties like New England Clam Chowder and Loaded Potato Soup from the Midwest are especially big now,” claims Susi Handke-Greiner, executive chef for R&D at Harry’s Fresh Foods. Frain notes that casual dining patrons are looking for soups that “fit into the comfort zone but have a point of difference—like tomato basil. It brings classic tomato to the next level.”
  • Clean labels. “All-natural is an ongoing trend that’s reflected in the newer push for ‘clean labels,’” states Volker Frick, executive chef at Kettle Cuisine. The fewer the ingredients listed on the deck and the easier they are to understand, the more appealing the soup. Organic soups are also on the wish list in some circles, and more varieties are being developed to please that customer.
  • An eye toward presentation. Serve-yourself delis and quickservice spots usually provide simple bowls or takeout containers for soup service, but casual and fine-dining concepts are polishing presentation with clever serving ware and interesting garnishes. “To upsell soup, think about presenting it in different ways, like swirling two bisques together in one bowl or serving soup shooters in small shot glasses,” suggests Handke-Greiner.

Soup stars

Many restaurants like to rotate in new soups on a seasonal, weekly or even daily basis. But certain varieties remain perennial favorites and can never be taken off the menu. Datassential MenuTrends Direct reports Americans’ top picks.

  • Chowder is the most popular soup type overall, appearing on 15 percent of menus among restaurants serving soup 
  • Vegetable soup follows in menu popularity with 14 percent menu penetration
  • Clam chowder, chicken noodle, tortilla and French onion soups all appear on about 10 percent of soup restaurant menus
  • Some less common soups that are popular at QSRs are broccoli-cheese, chicken & rice and Italian wedding soup
  • Midscale establishments are most likely to menu minestrone, chicken & rice, lentil and pea soup
  • Casual dining restaurants menu some higher end soups like French onion, tortilla soup and gumbo

Soup of the day

Operators share their strategies for menuing and selling soup

Bruce Rogers, executive chef
Hale & Hearty, New York City

At a central commissary in Brooklyn, Rogers preps about 1,800 gallons of stock each morning for the 16 to 20 soups dispensed daily at 23 Hale & Hearty locations. The company employs a vegetable buyer who works out of the Philadelphia farmers’ market just to supply the fresh produce that’s delivered every weekday; a separate supplier handles the huge orders of chicken bones and tenders and other meats. “We have a separate walk-in set up just to receive the chicken,” he notes.

Rogers tries to keep things seasonal as he creates new recipes and tweaks old ones. “The only frozen vegetables we use are peas, green beans and artichokes,” he says, “and none of the fresh produce is cut until it’s ready to go into the soup pot.” Top
selling soups include Roasted Butternut Squash, Tomato Cheddar, Corn Chowder (made with corn shucked from the cob) and Tomato Basil with Rice. “We get a tremendous number of emails requesting vegetarian soups, so I’m focusing on introducing more in that category,” Rogers reports. He tries to add a new soup each week; a recent launch is Autumn Minestrone—chock full of harvest vegetables with the plus of being low in fat, dairy free and vegan. In step with the comfort trend, he’s also experimenting with an old-fashioned chicken and dumpling soup enriched with sour cream and potato dumplings.

Chad Thompson, senior director of R&D
Einstein Bros. Bagels, Lakewood, Colorado

Working out of a test kitchen at this bakery-café’s corporate headquarters, Thompson develops a roster of soups that changes three or four times a year. The signature recipes are then prepared in bulk by Einstein’s vendor partner and turned into  proprietary products that are delivered to each location. “We use one vendor to customize the soups according to our specs so the results can be duplicated and consistent in each store,” he explains. “I work on the recipes six months ahead so our supplier has time to procure the ingredients in high volume.”

This partnership has allowed Einstein Bros. to put more emphasis on soups in the last few years. Four choices are offered every day, making it convenient for customers to build a complete lunch option. Top sellers include Chicken Noodle, Turkey Chili and Broccoli-Cheddar. New for fall is 7-Onion Soup, “containing onions you might never see in a French onion soup,” Thompson points out. It’s topped with bagel croutons sprinkled with a blend of Parmesan and provolone cheeses. “A good soup has to have good bread, so we’re always looking for cool bagel garnishes,” he adds.

Thompson is keeping an eye on several trends as he develops soups for winter and spring. “Bisques are very ‘hot’ right now and I’m looking at lower sodium options,” he says. He’s also pushing to use ingredients closer to home. “Instead of importing shrimp from China, I’m sourcing Gulf shrimp, for example, and trying to use ingredients that support local farmers.” 

RJ Melman, managing partner
RJ Grunts, Chicago

The soup and salad bar has been an attraction at this Lettuce Entertain You casual concept since it opened its doors in 1971. And even though Chicago is a soup town—especially during the frigid winters—the kitchen is always working on new recipes and promotions to satisfy its loyal customers.

“We start our stocks fresh every day and from there create hearty soups with ingredients in season,” says Melman. Chicken Noodle has been a staple since the beginning, but other crowd-pleasers include Tortilla, Mediterranean Lentil, Chicken Pot Pie and Cheddar Cheese. In an odd twist that’s turned into a successful promotion, patrons snag the biggest bargains in the winter, when soup cravings are at their height. RJ Grunts offers two varieties of its much-anticipated “Temperature Soup,” priced to correspond with the temperature outdoors.

“Although sales go up, prices go down,” quips Melman. It’s not uncommon for soup to sell for as little as 10 cents during a string
of chilly days. This past year, the restaurant tried a variation on the theme: Economy Soup. Portions were priced based on the Dow Jones Index—divided by 10,000. 

Manny Paula, COO
Kelly’s, Boston, MA

No one can mess with Kelly’s Clam Chowder—the family recipe has been passed down from the original beachfront Kelly’s that opened in 1951 and “is near and dear to our hearts,” says Paula. “We spec chopped sea clams from Seawatch in Charlestown [Massachusetts] that are packed expressly for us and the cream comes from a local dairy. It’s our signature soup and best seller.”
It’s also the only soup that the five-unit fast-casual concept cooks from scratch. “We used to make our own chicken noodle soup,
but we found a Massachusetts vendor—Kettle Cuisine—with a consistent, high-quality product. Purchasing their soup is a smarter option for us—it guarantees consistency from location to location,” he adds. Cream of Broccoli, Tomato Rice and Loaded Potato Soup are some of the other varieties popular with Kelly’s customers. In addition, Kettle Cuisine is currently developing a chili base exclusively for this regional chain. “It’s our first custom soup. It will come to each location and we’ll add the beef on site,” Paula explains.

Using a local supplier has distinct advantages; store managers and shift supervisors visit the plant periodically to get a look at production and see the ingredients that go into the different soups. “It makes our staff proud of where the products come from—and makes them more likely to suggest a cup of soup as an add-on to an order,” says Paula. 

Michael DeFonzo, executive chef
PJ Clarke’s, New York City

The soup pots bubble year round at this venerable Manhattan tavern, although richer, heartier
bowlfuls dominate in winter. PJ Clarke’s motto is “it’s never too hot for soup and never too cold for iced tea.” DeFonzo, who develops soups for all four locations, says “I give the same recipe to each restaurant kitchen, but leave some room for different pairs of hands to add their personal touch.”

Vegetables are prepped in house for all the stocks and DeFonzo then builds the soups in a tilt braiser. Always on the menu are New England Clam Chowder and French Onion Soup. “Beef Barley used to be a staple too, but now I do a Vegetable Barley,” he says. Louisiana Gumbo and Tomato Cheddar also rotate into the lineup.

In a departure from these straightforward soups, DeFonzo created a Truffle Soup with Pastry Raft & Old Amsterdam Foam for September’s NY400 celebration—an event commemorating New York City’s Dutch roots. The elegant ingredients include truffles, heavy cream and grated Old Amsterdam cheese blended together and presented in an espresso cup topped with an ethereal cheese foam (above).

Q&A with David Kamen

Instructor, Culinary Institute of America, and consultant to The New Book of Soups by the Chefs of the CIA

What trends are you tracking?
Soup is ubiquitous in all cuisines, but right now, we’re taking a closer look at Korea, Brazil, Argentina and Chile. We’re also veering away from flour-thickened soups and towards lighter vegetable purees for thickening.

Why are soups especially popular now?
They fit into the economies of cooking and food cost savings. Soups are one-pot operations that allow a kitchen to cross-utilize ingredients. There’s also the “soul value” of a steamy bowl of soup—a plus in today’s economic climate.

How can restaurant kitchens increase operational efficiencies?
Cut all the vegetables for all the soups you’re preparing at once. Frozen, pre-cut vegetables are also a timesaver. Build your soup menu so you can repurpose ingredients and even recycle the soup from one day into the next day’s selections.

Can you suggest a good number and assortment of soups to offer?
Three to five choices provide enough variety without overwhelming customers. Include a brothy soup, something thick and hearty and a specialty soup for differentiation. Focus on seasonal favorites, like mushroom or pumpkin soup in the fall and a cold soup in the summer. And always have a vegetarian choice.

Is there special equipment needed for a successful soup program?
For soups from scratch, steam jacketed kettles are handy. I also recommend a good blender for pureeing. And a device to package soup into heavy-duty, 1-gallon plastic bags that can be chilled and reheated quickly. This is not only a convenience, it’s a smart HAACP procedure.

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