Soup is cheap and easy to prepare, and remains a firm favourite with diners, with both traditional hearty varieties and healthier options proving popular. Emma White reports
Soup is one of the most versatile dishes on a menu and retains its position as the number one UK starter and eighth most popular food eaten out of home. Inexpensive and simple to prepare, it's a dish that can be positioned as a simple starter option, indulgent hearty meal or an "on-the-go" snack.
It also suits the trend towards grazing in preference to the traditional three set meals a day.
Wholesome traditional varieties remain popular, although the trend towards healthier eating and the publicity of the "five-a-day" campaign is driving sales of more varied fresh options and reduced-fat and -salt recipes.
TNS Foodservice statistics show that women aged over 35 represent the largest portion of the soup-eating population, followed by men aged over 45, while children consume soup least often.
"Operators that don't have soup on the menu are missing out on the huge profit potential the dish offers," says Laurence Smith, category marketing director for Unilever Foodsolutions, whose brands include the ambient 15-flavour range of Knorr 100 per cent Soup. "The secret is to keep soup fresh and different," he says.
At Nestlé Foodservices, whose Maggi range of soup mixes incorporates 12 popular varieties from wild mushroom to French onion, marketing director Martin Lines suggests offering Mediterranean and Asian flavours on the specials menu as an alternative to the popular traditional choices.
"Introducing Continental and Asian flavours is relatively simple," he says, citing pak choi, bean sprouts, egg noodles, cooked prawns, lime juice, ginger and chilli as the sort of ingredients that can be added to a basic spring vegetable soup to create an Asian hot and sour-style soup.
Mainstays are still important to the soup menu, however, with TNS Foodservice data revealing that vegetable and tomato remain the most popular flavours among consumers. Baxters potato and leek soup is its food service best seller among the 26 flavours in its Good as Home-Made frozen range, which includes the more unusual seasonal courgette and crème fraîche. Likewise, the Heinz Taste of Home range is inspired by home-made stews and casseroles, while Premier Foods' McDougalls brand offers 17 instant soup varieties, including broccoli and Stilton and asparagus.
Premier Foods development chef Mark Rigby advises caterers to make the most of increased consumer awareness of seasonality. "To really offer customers the best-tasting and most memorable soup, use seasonal ingredients such as, this autumn, root vegetables, parsnips and swede as well as types of squashes including pumpkin, marrow and squash itself," he says. The company suggests adding value to ready-made soups by adding extra ingredients such as fresh parsnips, sugar and paprika to vegetable soup and chopped celery, ground ginger and sherry to broccoli and Stilton soup.
Flagging up fresh and locally sourced ingredients is a great way to add value to soup, along with pairing off soup dishes with main courses which contain produce from the same areas. Mike Brown, executive chef for contract caterer Charlton House, says: "All of our soups are made in-house using fresh, natural ingredients. How we describe our soup menus is important, as people like to know what they're eating and what exciting combinations we've put together for them. We view our soups as a lighter extension of our main courses. A sweet chilli and chicken noodle soup is really popular because it has all of the flavours of a stir-fry."
Jon Coomb, owner and head chef of the Westerly restaurant in Reigate, Surrey, points out that soup is often the first thing customers see on a menu, and can make a huge impact. "We always try to make a real dish of soup, as it's important to entice customers to look at the full three courses," he says.
The Westerly offers a watercress and potato soup with home-smoked sea trout, which is smoked just before service. Towards winter, the restaurant will also offer a game and barley soup with a pheasant boudin. "I'm pleasantly surprised at the customers' response to using experimental ingredients," he adds.
While Coomb believes many soups should be strong enough to be served alone, he concedes that extra ingredients and accompaniments are important for adding appeal and value. "We'll often serve soups with toasts, such as gazpacho, which comes with tapenade toast and marinated sardines," he says.
At Charlton House, soups are finished with dressings such as crème fraîche, Parmesan or a basil dressing, so that customers can add different flavours. "Focaccia bread drizzled in olive oil and dry-roasted is another popular accompaniment," says Brown.
Gap in the market
The suitability of soup as a snack-to-go has seen the emergence of soup bars around the country, such as the smoothie and soup bar Energy Kitchen, founded five years ago by Christian Gierstorfer after he noticed a gap in the market for healthy, convenient snacks.
"I noticed that people were limited to eating at restaurants, fast-food outlets or grabbing a cold sandwich," he says. "There was nowhere offering the convenience of fast food but with healthy options."
Energy Kitchen is located in all UK Selfridges stores, Harrods and Swindon's Design Outlet and offers a range of nutritional soups, salads, fruit pots and pretzels with no added colourings, preservatives, flavourings or artificial sweeteners. A selection of 20-25 soups is revolved throughout the year, and the soup bar offers six to eight vegetarian and non-vegetarian organic varieties a day, including chicken, pumpkin, jalapeño, and vegetarian goulash as well as the more traditional tomato and thyme - proving that old favourites endure, even in the most modern soup kitchens.
This summer Energy Kitchen has experimented with chilled and fruit soups, but Gierstorfer says they have received a lukewarm reaction. "These soups don't sell so well, and I can't see that changing," he says. "Customers like their soup hot."
Top five soup varieties
Source: TNS Worldpanel Foodservice February 2007
Baxters 01343 820393
Heinz 0800 575755 www.heinzfoodservice.co.uk
Knorr/Unilever Foodsolutions 0800 783 3728 www.unileverfoodsolutions.co.uk
Maggi/Nestlé Foodservices 0800 742842 www.nestlefoodservice.co.uk
McDougalls/Premier Foods 0845 328 4246 www.premierfoods.co.uk