While "what's the soup of the day?" is one of the most-asked questions by customers in restaurants, pubs and cafés, chefs have a different question to address - should they make their own soup or buy in ready-made brands? Both approaches have their advocates, although those outlets serving commercial brands are understandably less vocal.
As one premium soup manufacturer puts it: "We struggle to get user testimonials, because most of the outlets serving our soup don't really want to advertise it to their customers."
At Ye Old Sun Inn at Colton, North Yorkshire, home-made soup is proudly on the menu all year around. Owners Ashley and Kelly McCarthy, named BII Licensees of the Year 2013, have built the pub's reputation on freshly-cooked food made with seasonal ingredients sourced locally.
Despite soup being a menu staple, head chef Ashley believes there's no question of it being seen as passé by customers. "Soups play a large part on our menu, and not just seasonally or when the weather is cold. Maybe it's because we still promote ourselves as a pub rather than a restaurant, but our customers definitely expect to see soup on a pub menu," he says.
Ye Old Sun Inn introduced a two-tier approach to soup at the start of 2013, with both a traditional variety and a more expensive option. The cheaper soup will be a variety such as leek and potato, pea and mint or curried parsnip, while premium varieties have included wild mushroom with tarragon ravioli, Cullen skink, and cream of celery with a blue cheese fritter.
Both soup choices are served with home-made bread. "Our usual rule of thumb is that the more expensive soup has an accompaniment like the fritter or ravioli. We use seasonal commodities, and we change the flavour every batch of 25 portions. We've found we're selling more soups overall and, interestingly, more of the higher-priced soups than the cheaper ones," says McCarthy.
He believes his customers definitely expect a home-made soup with home-made bread also served. "If they go to a branded pub they would expect a packet or frozen soup. Customers know what to expect from the type of unit. Usually the cost isn't much different, but I believe they can tell the difference in flavour."
He adds: "Soup can be a good way of using surplus vegetables and produce, and a way of recouping GP when you might have to hold down prices on main courses. Although we buy ingredients in just to make soups due to the amount we sell, they can be class-two commodities and cheaper cuts.
"Our best sellers tend to be the different varieties that customers maybe wouldn't make at home, such as chicken Thai noodle broth or oxtail soup. Our more
traditional soups tend to sell best at Sunday lunch as a starter."
Even the most die-hard proponent of home-made soups can be persuaded, though. Unilever Food Solutions recently challenged Mark Gigg, head chef at
Ye Olde Plough House hotel and restaurant in Bulphan, Essex, to try its range.
He said: "It's been about seven years since I've used pre-prepared soups. At Ye Olde Plough House we make them fresh every day. It's hard work, but it means we're in control of the flavours. I expected to receive some cheap and salty powdered soups that would taste very bland. In actual fact, what I got was very different.
"I was very impressed. So much so, I tried a few out on my customers in the restaurant. It was a risk, but it paid off because everyone seemed to really enjoy them. My favourites were the Knorr 1-2-3 Chicken Noodle, which was surprisingly nice. The Knorr Classic Cream of Asparagus and Tomato varieties were also good.
"The best thing is that I had a choice of whether to use it as a base or as the finished product. From blending in some cream to adding a bit of basil, I was able to add my own finishing touches which, for a chef, is really helpful, as no one likes to feel too restricted by their ingredients.
"Tasting is believing and I'd definitely consider using them now. It would save me manpower, money and time by using Knorr. And, I get to add my own style to it before it gets sent out, so the customers know it's something special."
A refined finish
At the Hampton Manor hotel near Birmingham, head chef Ryan Swift says: "When people hear the word 'soup', they instantly think of the traditional styles, such as leek and potato or tomato. I wanted to put soup on the menu, but wanted to do something a little bit out of the ordinary."
Armed with a Vitamix Vita-Prep blender, "it's possible to create bases for soups that have an excellent texture and finish. At present, we have a nettle velouté on the lunch menu with slow-cooked duck eggs and Jersey Royal potatoes" (see box).
Chris Ince, executive chef at 7 Day Catering, believes that despite the popularity of soup, there's still an opportunity to extend sales. "It's a mistake to simply view soup as a starter or light lunch. Indian dahls are very sustaining, as are Asian broths and Thai laksas. In the UK, we can call upon beef and barley - or Scotch broth as it's commonly known - together with split pea and ham. All make for handsome meals when paired with bread."
He adds: "Soup is so very versatile. Each country has its own version and style, making it ideal for restaurant promotions. In addition, there will almost certainly be a soup that fits well with a recent eating out trend."
Boosting soup sales
- Keep interest up: many on-the-go consumers will be looking for something different, so vary the 'soup of the day' each day of the working week.
- Mix it up: add ingredients such as a pinch of fresh herbs or a swirl of crème fraÁ®che to classic flavours such as tomato and chicken to add a point of difference.
- Keep up with consumer trends: tastes are constantly changing so outlets should be aware of 'flavour of the month' food trends. Hot flavours are particularly popular at the moment, and a sprinkling of chilli flakes can spice up almost any soup. Recreating international flavours can be simple - a touch of cumin can add a Moroccan twist, while lime and coriander can deliver tastes of Mexico.
- Add value: accompaniments can be just as important as the soup itself, so investing in a variety of rustic breads, cheese twists and flavoured croutons can give consumers more choice and boost incremental sales.
- Create meal deals: A reduced price for buying soups with a sandwich, sausage roll or drink will go down particularly well with diners looking for a quick and affordable meal.
- Merchandise: clearly signpost meal deals and 'soup of the day' both inside and outside to draw in customers.
- Heinz Foodservice provides a variety of merchandising solutions, including soup cauldrons, branded containers, aprons and even clocks to help outlets drive incremental sales.
Michelle Smith, brand manager, Heinz Foodservice
The Real Soup Company (TRSC) reports a strong regional pattern in soup flavours, with consumers in the North opting for heartier tastes and textures, while those in London and the South East enjoy spicier recipes and the influence of international cuisine.
Having analysed customers' 2012-2013 buying trends across the country, TRSC found that traditional recipes such as pea and ham top the list of best sellers in the Midlands and the north of England, and leek and potato remains a firm favourite in Wales.
More exotic tastes in London and the South East mean favourite flavours include butternut squash and sweet potato, sweet red pepper and coriander, and Thai chicken. In Scotland, TRSC's year-round best-seller is the rustic red lentil, but for particularly patriotic celebrations such as Burns Night, sales of cock-a-leekie and Scotch broth increase significantly.
Marie Gawley, foodservice commercial manager at TRSC, says: "Operators should always cater for regional preferences as these will be regular favourites, but it's equally important to introduce new flavours in order to sustain daily interest in the soup menus, and guard against flavour fatigue."
Cream of Woodland Mushroom Soup
Created by Pritchitts
500g flat mushrooms
500g Portobello mushrooms
200g onions, diced
20g garlic, chopped
1 bunch of thyme, chopped
750ml vegetable stock
500ml Millac Gold
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Clean and prepare the flat mushrooms. Slice the Portobello mushrooms. Sauté the onions, garlic, mushrooms and thyme in a heavy bottomed pan.
Add the stock, season well and simmer for 20 minutes. Add the Pritchitts Millac Gold and bring to the boil. Season to taste. Remove from the heat and blend (pass through a sieve depending on the desired consistency). Add a little milk froth and porcini dust to create a 'cappuccino'. Serve with a little truffle oil and spelt flatbread or Parmesan straws.
Created by Ryan Swift at Hampton Manor, using the Vitamix Vita-Prep 3 blender
3 shallots, finely sliced
1 garlic clove, crushed
500ml chicken stock
500g nettles, well washed
Method Sweat the shallots and garlic in butter in a pan until they are tender and without colour. Add the chicken stock and simmer until the volume has reduced by a third. Add the nettles and season well.
Continue cooking for a few minutes more, ensuring you retain the freshness of the nettles. Season with salt and lemon zest, blend the mixture in the Vita-Prep 3, and pass through a fine sieve. Chill the velouté over ice. Ryan Swift serves the velouté with a slow-cooked duck egg and Jersey Royal potatoes.
- Tropical Sun Foods has launched a new range of authentic Caribbean soup mixes, which includes Chicken Noodle Soup, Cock Noodle Soup, Vegetable Noodle Soup, Pumpkin Noodle Soup and Fish Tea Soup. A convenient way to capitalise on the popularity of Caribbean food and drink, the soups can also be enjoyed simply as a tasty snack, as stock for broths and stews, or used as a soup base to use up seasonal meat and vegetables. The soups are available in sachets, which provide a starter for two people.
- The Real Soup Co has extended its range of fresh chilled soups with two new flavours aimed at autumn/winter menus. Spicy Bean Soup is a warming blend of cannellini and kidney beans with a kick of chilli, while Tomato & Chipotle is a creamy tomato soup enhanced with a subtle twist of smoky chipotle. Like all flavours in the range, the new varieties are free from artificial colours, flavourings and preservatives. They are supplied in 16-portion 4kg microwaveable tubs, which can be stored in the fridge.
- Solo Cup Europe has added a 26oz size to its range of heavy duty paper food containers, ideal for soups, noodles and other hot dishes. Filling the gap between the traditional 16oz and 32oz sizes, the container is made from double poly paper with the option of economical translucent polypropylene lids or vented paper lids. They are microwaveable, will withstand refrigeration and freezing, and can also be bespoke-branded for longer runs.
7 Day Cateringwww.7daycatering.co.uk
Heinz Foodservice 0800 575755 www.heinzfoodservice.co.uk
Pritchitts 020 8290 7020 www.pritchitts.com
Solo Cup Europe 01480 459413 www.solocupeurope.co.uk
The Real Soup Co 01495 301999
Tropical Sun 020 8988 1100 www.wanis.net
Unilever Food Solutions UK 0800 783 3728 www.unileverfoodsolutions.co.uk
Vitamix 8455 048 050 www.vitamixcommercial.co.uk