Whether classic or innovative, soups gain traction on menus as nutritious, nostalgic and convenient options.
This article first appeared in the 1 December 2007 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).
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By Kate Leahy, Senior Associate Editor
When Bruegger's asked its customers what they thought about its soup offerings, the Burlington, Vt.-based chain heard two things.
"First, our guests didn't know we have soup. We heard that our soups hadn't caught fire at all," says Executive Chef Philip Smith. The second revelation was "that we have some markets that have a huge passion for soups."
Through careful re-examination of Bruegger's soup program, the company spotted several trends. For one, the overwhelming popularity of Bruegger's Chicken Spaetzle soup told Smith that classic soups such as chicken noodle weren't immutable. Regional preferences, he realized, could be addressed by serving the same soups at different frequencies rather than serving different soups. And he was surprised by the sentimental value placed on soup in some markets, particularly in colder regions such as New England.
What Smith and several other operators are realizing is how valuable good soup can be to the overall success of an establishment. In a multicourse fine-dining meal, soup often is the first dish a guest tastes. For working lunches, soup satisfies as a one-dish meal. And its ability to soothe and to inspire nostalgia provides an opportunity for building customer loyalty.
Within those gallons is an array of recipes, from staunchly traditional chicken vegetable to innovative and seasonal specialties, such as the chain's pumpkin, lobster and ginger soup. The bases for most of Druker's soups are slowly simmered chicken, beef or lobster stocks. To Druker's customers, many of them college students, the soups are good fast food. "You can eat on the run and not feel guilty about it," Druker says.
R&I's 2007 Menu Census found that chicken noodle, seafood chowder, and broccoli-and-cheese are the best-selling soups, but there is ample room for new ideas on menus. Emerging soup trends include more ethnic-influenced creations, more fresh ingredients and more vegetarian options; cream-based recipes are receiving less attention. In short, soups with assertive flavor profiles are on the rise.
"Ethnic soups are exploding," says Jens Retlev, director of culinary for the Boston-based Au Bon Pain fast-casual chain. Retlev also points to broths and spicy ingredients as growth areas. One of the chain's new soups, Portuguese Kale, hits on all of these trends: It features chorizo sausage, potatoes, kale, cabbage, kidney beans and paprika simmered in chicken stock. Consumer feedback has been notably positive, Retlev says.
Along with bolder flavors comes a growing commitment to using better ingredients to heighten flavor. "In the '80s, when you wanted soups to taste better, you added salt, the inexpensive flavor enhancer," Retlev says. "We had a French onion soup with a lot of sodium, and we cut sodium almost in half. Now we can actually taste the onions."
At Aigre Doux in Chicago, Chef-owner Mohammad Islam devises soup recipes to highlight a single ingredient. In the spring the result might be a puréed artichoke soup steeped lightly with elderberry flowers. In the winter, the soup du jour might be a velvety puréed chestnut soup. At other times of the year, an unexpectedly rich cauliflower soup, made with cauliflower that is caramelized for an hour and a half, graces the menu. The cauliflower, which is puréed with chicken stock, produces a sweet and creamy soup without the addition of cream.
"We don't add a lot of ingredients to the soup," Islam explains. "It is about the primary product."
When served as a first course, soup sets the tone for the meal. "It's your first chance to really impress the people who are coming into your restaurant," says Sous-Chef Sean Morrison at Norma's, a restaurant within the Topnotch Resort and Spa in Stowe, Vt. "When I'm training a new cook in the kitchen, I say it's the first thing that people see and eat."
As important as offering an enticing soup, Morrison stresses, is serving consistent product. Even though soups change daily, Morrison and Chef Brian Tomlinson write down all versions so that if a guest returns a year later and requests a specific soup served during a previous visit, the kitchen has the recipe.
At Au Bon Pain, customers serve themselves at a soup bar; this gives them time to see and smell soups before they make a choice. Although the bar boosts sales, the downside is that some customers cherry-pick the best ingredients from the pot. To avoid this, Retlev offers a selection of puréed and broth-based soups and has an employee keep constant watch over the soup bar and bring refills as necessary.
Offering a broad selection helps boost sales, too. Au Bon Pain is increasing to 12 (from eight) the number of soups offered at each location. In addition, the majority of the more than 40 soups in Au Bon Pain's repertoire now are vegetarian in order to ensure their appeal to a broad audience. Smith believes that vegetarian options can increase orders of soups as sides.
"When [soup] accompanies a sandwich with meat, it's good when it is meatless so you're not ordering too much meat," he says, pointing to how well a fire-roasted tomato soup pairs with a turkey bagel sandwich.
The challenge is in infusing vegetable soups with enough flavor to make them satisfying to both vegetarian and nonvegetarian diners. Morrison emphasizes building flavors by taking the time to slowly sweat shallots or onions and garlic to form the base of the soup. He also has played with texture, as by puréeing silken tofu with a pinch of saffron into a vegan white-asparagus soup.
Nostalgic or New?
Although bolder-flavor soups are on the rise, consumers won't abandon old favorites. Smith says soup selection is "a balance between sentiment and new, exciting ideas, as long as you keep in mind a level of comfort." Classic creamy soups such as clam chowder always are available on Au Bon Pain's soup bar.
Revising classics can be successful, as Smith found with Bruegger's Chicken Spaetzle, which replaces noodles with spaetzle dumplings. Not only did the spaetzle add novelty to the soup, but also it held up better in the pot. Similarly, New England Soup Factory's Druker makes a few chicken-soup variations; she refers to her chicken-pot-pie soup as "the ultimate comfort zone." A chicken-stock base is thickened into a roux to form a creamy velouté that enrobes chunks of carrots and pearl onions poured into a vol-au-vent. With her chicken vegetable soup, customers can elect to add a matzo ball that Druker describes as being "the size of a softball."
It's no surprise that traditional soups have staying power, because it isn't only customers who yearn for the classics. Morrison says that in the fall, when temperatures drop, his thoughts turn to his grandmother's classic New England clam chowder. "In fact," he says, "I'm thinking of making it tonight."
Classic Versus Contemporary
During summer, Executive Chef Chad Kornetzke of Lola's on the Lake at the Osthoff Resort in Elkhart Lake, Wis., likes to experiment with soups, as by caramelizing the outside of cauliflower and then adding to the cauliflower saffron, vegetable stock and cream.
However, in winter, when tourists and vacation-home visitors are fewer, he makes classic soups with contemporary twists. One of the most popular soups he serves is made with potato, celeriac and cheese; it highlights locally produced Gruyère cheese and Wisconsin bacon. Year-round in the resort's informal dining room, tomato basil bisque is the favorite.
Like Kornetzke, many other chefs alternate between classic and contemporary flavors in soups to satisfy regular guests and keep menus fresh.
- Chicken and Rice: Lime, cilantro and jalapeÁ±o give this classic soup new dimension at California Cafe in Los Gatos, Calif.
- Butternut Squash and Apple: Flavored with leeks and apple cider, this soup is one of the most popular recipes served at the University Club at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich.
- Mushroom Chowder: Large slices of mushrooms and chunks of potatoes come together in a thick, creamy soup that is a favorite at Gifford Medical Center in Randolph, Vt.
- Blueberry Soup: Spiked with cardamom, cinnamon and orange, this classic Scandinavian soup, served hot, debuted on Au Bon Pain's menu this fall.
- Spring Potato Melon Soup: The bold combination of chilled melon soup and a hot potato soup became a daily summer- soup special at Norma's at the Topnotch Resort in Stowe, Vt.
- Moroccan-Spiced Chorizo Soup: Caramelized chorizo, garlic, eggplant and onions come together in a Moroccan-spiced roasted tomato broth at Lola's on the Lake.
What soup descriptors sway consumers?
According to Chicago-based researcher Technomic Inc.'s 2007 Soup Category Report, top terms include "hearty", "unique blend" and "simmered for 10 hours."
In challenging soup purveyors to create soups that would appeal to guests, Executive Chef Philip Smith of Burlington, Vt.-based Bruegger's discovered that the terms "organic" and "natural" were a little too left-of-center for customers. What they really wanted to hear, Smith says, was that soups were flavorful and hearty, as with its Chicken Spaetzle Bagel Bowl.