Good soups can warm a diner on a cold winter’s day, but, according to chefs nationwide, that is only the beginning.
“Soups are a great indicator of what is coming. It says so much about the quality of the food at any restaurant,” says Michael Anthony, executive chef at New York’s Gramercy Tavern.
Mark Alan Mollentine, who is a restaurateur, chef, and small-business owner in Kansas City, Kansas, concurs.
“I judge a restaurant by its soup. If you can’t make a good soup, then what does that say about the restaurant? In my mind a restaurant’s soup has to be spot-on.”
As many can attest, soup is the ultimate comfort food, but it can be equally comforting to a restaurant’s bottom line.
“Soups have a fantastic profit margin,” says Ris Lacoste, chef, owner of RIS in Washington, D.C. She ought to know because she serves plenty of them and even touts a “soup calendar.”
“When it is cold out, you know that you are going to sell a ton of soup,” she says.
Lacoste not only menus several varieties of soups, she also revels in making them: “I absolutely love making soups. As a cook it is my favorite thing in the world to make. You have the vision of the end product, and you have to layer the flavors.
“With a soup you really have to craft it. All of your spirit, love, and feeling are in it. Your whole being is in it,” Lacoste says.
At her establishment, soup goes for $5 a cup and $8 a bowl. On busy days, the restaurant may serve close to 100 bowls of such delicious offerings as Minnesota Wild Rice & Duck Soup, Moroccan Lamb & Lentil Soup, Pork & Green Chile Posole, Shrimp & Pork Wonton Soup, Potage Parmentier, Roasted Eggplant Soup, Roasted Red Pepper & Corn, and the ever-popular New England Clam Chowder.
Kathy Hayden, who is a foodservice analyst for Mintel, says chowders are a great way to showcase regional flavors.
“With the exception of barbecue, chowders may be the most localized recipes in American food ways, and they are an easy way to cross state lines and add some regional tastes to any menu, which more operators are doing.
“Seafood bisques, gumbos, and San Francisco’s cioppino are other chowderlike creations that show up on menus far beyond their hometowns or states,” she says.
Aside from bringing in good returns on investments, soup prep can use leftovers, unused veggies, and other scraps from the kitchen.
Nick Anderer, executive chef at New York’s Maialino, part of the Union Square Hospitality Group, says, “When thinking about soups, you want to eat things that you are seeing at the market, but as a restaurant manager, you have to be thinking of things that are left over.”
For that reason soup becomes a great outlet for any trim from vegetables, meat, or fish. “When we made our vegetable minestrone, we used Parmesan rinds that were soaked in a vegetable broth with beans and fennel. That soup was totally born out of leftovers. It was like the kitchen sink soup.”
At Maialino, the best-selling soup is Stracciatella alla Romana, which is an Italian egg drop soup. The thin broth is laced with beaten eggs and such familiar Italian ingredients as Parmigiano-Reggiano, Italian parsley, semolina, and nutmeg. “This soup has had a longer run than most. We’ve had it on the lunch menu for 25 or 30 days.”
Anderer says that he has to view his dishes through an ‘Italian looking glass,’ but says, “at the end of the day we are in New York City and not Rome,” so it affects product availability. “We can’t get all the ingredients, so I am inspired by, but not restricted to, the Italian prototype.”
Nick Strawhecker, who is the chef at Dante Ristorante e Pizzeria, a full-service restaurant in Omaha, Nebraska, is even more challenged finding local sources for his Italian offerings. “Our mantra is working with local farmers as much as possible. We purchase cheese curd and stretch the mozzarella in house.”
His winter soup offering is Sunchoke (also known as Jerusalem artichoke) and Cippolini. Sunchokes, which are native to Nebraska, have a nutty flavor, and Strawhecker describes them as a cross between “a water chestnut and a potato.” At first the soup, which is garnished with pickled green onion, garlic, and olives, didn’t sell. “If something doesn’t sell, I change the verbiage on the menu and move it around.”
In the case of his sunchoke soup, he added the garnish descriptor and it began to move. During the spring, Strawhecker menus a Ribollita, a Tuscan-style country soup that is made up of white beans, Cavallo Nero (black kale), and day-old bread.
“It is a hearty, brothy soup with onions, tomatoes, and lots of olive oil and garlic. Our guests love it.”
Because of soup’s lower price points, executive chef James Schroeder says, sales are up at TJ’s in the Jefferson Hotel, Richmond, Virginia, a restaurant that menus Italian, Mediterranean, and Southern cuisine.
“I think soups are selling more because they offer a very good price point for the guests. It seems that more and more guests are opting for the soup-and-salad combination. Soup is a big part of their meal.”
TJ’s, which deals with local farmers that sell their animals in half sections, uses every bit of the animal. “We make stock out of the bones, and portions of the leg are braised for soup, and we used all the little shredded pieces of meat.
“The biggest thing in the kitchen is don’t waste anything,” Schroeder says.
From leftovers he created a wildly popular Chipotle and Black Bean Soup that costs the restaurant virtually nothing. “And we are selling 80 portions at $7 apiece.” His Virginia Peanut Soup is likewise a crowd pleaser and also offers great margins.
Schroeder also thinks that soups offer a healthier option than many other dishes.
“Even a cream-based soup is a little healthier than a sandwich and french fries, and soups take you a long way. They can really get you through the day.”
He says that as a rule lighter soups are more popular with women while men tend to choose heartier varieties.
Chef Chris Bradley, executive chef at Untitled in New York’s Whitney Museum, agrees that less can be more. “We have a lot of people who like to eat healthy. When we make a pureed soup, we know it’s healthy because it has no flour and just a little olive oil. People have been gravitating to soup because they offer a healthy alternative.”
Untitled, which is based on the traditional coffee shop, uses lots of seasonal ingredients in its soups. “When it’s cold outside, we like to start with chicken stock and then begin to put some heartier things in there like parsnips, carrots, onions, or celery.”
Some of the restaurant’s soups include traditional Matzo Ball; Mushroom Barley; Carrot Ginger, which is garnished with roasted peanuts and cilantro; Parsnip with Butternut Squash and Pears; and Cauliflower with Almond and Parsley Pesto.
Technomic’s MenuMonitor reports there has been a slight dip in the number of soup offerings on menus in 484 full-service restaurant concepts, down 0.7 percent from the second half of 2010 to the fourth quarter of 2011.
The findings show that the soups that have seen increases include Asian, beef vegetable, cheese, chicken dumpling, chicken rice, corn chowder, cream of vegetable, French onion, Italian wedding, minestrone, “other chicken,” seafood, and wild rice.
The soups that were seen less often on menus included chicken noodle, chicken vegetable, chowder, gumbo, pasta e fagioli, ramen, pozole, seafood bisque, tomato, tortilla, and vegetable.
Looking at menus for the end of 2011, Technomic reports, there are 1,231 soups menued with the top ingredients: chicken, onion, tomato, cheese, vegetable, tortilla, potato, cheddar, corn, and clams.
Chef Justin Voldan of 12 Baltimore in the Hotel Phillips in Kansas City, Missouri, menus several soups that are all made by hand from scratch. Rustic Chicken, and Beer and Cheese, which uses the hotel’s local partner, Boulevard beer, are two of the most popular. The Beer and Cheese soup is made with cheddar, Parmesan, Swiss, and some veggies.
“It takes a while to make our soups; we are literally churning away for 45 minutes.”
Whenever Voldan creates the “soup of the day,” he tries to be creative by thinking of a classic dish and trying to figure out how to make it into a soup. “I think of shrimp and grits and ask myself, ‘how could I make a soup?’”
Voldan’s cream-based soup turned out to include shrimp stock and a little clam juice reduced with shallots. At the end he added the shrimp and grits. For the stock he pureed in more shrimp to infuse the base.
Voldan also created a German Potato Soup, which combined the vinegar flavors, red potatoes, and the familiar bacon. But his signature soup is Sweet Potato and Pear. “We serve it in the fall through mid-winter, and nine out of 10 people tell me it reminds them of Christmastime or their grandmother’s house.
“If I can take someone back to their childhood, then I am doing my job.”
Mintel’s Hayden says that soups increasingly offer real opportunity for chain operations to highlight creative research and development.
“French onion soup, with its crouton base, fragrant broth, and mounds of melted cheese, is a classic example of how soup can be layered to become so much more than the sum of its parts.
“Chewy bread bowls, crunchy tortilla toppings, and contrasting swirl-ins are just a few newer ways chefs and menu R&D specialists are adding bells and whistles to a bowl of soup.”
Some of the full-service chains that are offering interesting twists include Chevys Fresh Mex, which features rich chicken broth flavored with diced onion, tomato, corn, and jalapeno, with grilled chicken and topped with crispy tortilla strips, Cotija cheese, and fresh Hass avocados. The Shari’s Restaurant chain is menuing a luxurious Loaded Baked Potato Signature Soup, a creamy potato soup topped with sour cream, cheddar cheese, chives, and bacon.
At fine-dining establishments, guests more often than not are looking for different.
Executive Chef Jimmy Gibson, who just opened Jimmy G’s in Cincinnati, says: “When guests are in a fine-dining restaurant, they’re also looking for something they haven’t had before or can’t make at home—so the chef is somewhat faced with a dichotomy. Typically those types of soups are more complex and have origins in other parts of the world.”
Gibson says chefs must familiarize themselves with foods of other cultures and also take into account seasonal ingredients available, the weather, and the climate.
Chef Mollentine agrees that weather is a huge factor in soup sales. “When we get cold, what do we think of?” he asks. “When we got sick, what did we get?
“Soup is the ultimate comfort food. It has the widest range of emotions and tastes of any single food that I can think of. We all grew up with it.”
Mollentine also says the difference between good soups and grand soups is the way they are finished or garnished. “They should be garnished simply.” For his Corn Chowder, he garnishes with a touch of corn and red pepper, and for his Butternut Apple Soup, “I will take little shreds of apple and put it on top.” But he draws the line on adding things that float, like meatballs. He says it’s better to cut them up. “Guests don’t like things floating on top of their soup.”