Soup Sells

Soup's versatilty makes it profitable for non-commercial operators.

National Onion Association's Classic Onion Soup.

Hot soup, with its low food cost and high profit margin, is a liquid asset for many non-commercial operations, according to directors. Soup attracts consumer attention and creates considerable sales no matter the weather, operators say. Additionally, operators say soup is almost universally perceived as healthful and affordable—two main reasons for its popularity.

Food cost’s friend: “Soup sells even when it’s hot outside,” says Robert Lewandoski, director of food and nutrition at Bayonne Medical Center in New Jersey. “In the summertime, when it’s air-conditioned inside, people still order it. And when it’s cold out, people like it even more. They see it as a nourishing item. Certainly it is a comfort food, a staple of Western culture. Plus, it’s basically low cost even when you spend good money on a high-quality base because you still get a good yield out of it.”

According to Lewandoski, his hospital offers at least one variety of housemade soup in the cafeteria and two for the patients every day. Each soup on the retail side comes in an 8- or 12-ounce portion and in an 8-ounce portion for the patient population.

“What we do, especially for the patients, is have a set menu based on their feedback,” he says. “What we’re finding is they really want the familiar feel of a good soup, like chicken noodle or chicken with rice or vegetables. They’re not looking for the more novel types you see in restaurants. Instead, they are looking for basic comfort kinds of soup. I have to have chicken noodle soup available for them every day. And they want it to be freshly made from fresh ingredients. It is very rare that we can serve soup from a can; those are just too salty.”

He says all of the soups served at the hospital feature a lower-sodium content but a high flavor profile.

“As long as you use a high-quality soup base, where meat is the first ingredient and fresh vegetables like onions, celery and carrots are included, there will be a lot of flavor involved,” he says.

Health factor: Katherine Pennington, director of food and nutrition services at Rhode Island Hospital in Providence, says soup is a big seller because most people think it is a healthful option that offers good value as well.

“Soup is considered healthy, but it also is perceived to have good value for the price,” she says. “You certainly get a nice sampling of food groups, it’s warm and it gives you a feeling of comfort.”

“There is nothing like soup and a sandwich or salad,” she adds. “Of course some of the soups are higher in calories than others. Canadian cheese soups or chowders are higher. We have minestrone, vegetable, and chicken and rice, but our most popular soups are Italian wedding, New England clam chowder and Rhode Island clam chowder. The Rhode Island chowder is similar to Manhattan-style clam chowder in that it is made with a tomato base and tomato purée.”

Pennington further notes that the soup is made with fresh, locally sourced Narragansett, R.I., clams.

“We try where we can to use local sourcing, not all the time. But we try to support local farmers when we have the opportunity,” Pennington says.

Rhode Island Hospital Chef Daniel Van Etten says another bold soup is curried apple, made with fresh, local apples, curry and a chicken base.

“We also put in a little applesauce so it has a nice blend of flavors,” he says. “And another thing that distinguishes the recipe is we use a deglazing method by adding brandied liqueur to the cooking device. That releases all of the flavors off the kettle and creates a very unique flavor profile.”

Van Etten adds that the soup features real heavy cream, so it’s not low fat. “The cream is what makes it taste so great,” he says.

Van Etten also notes that the hospital’s Cajun crab soup is popular. It is made with Alaskan snow crab, fresh herbs and spices and a high-quality clam base. It, too, has cream in the recipe.

“We try to use the most reputable, high-quality products,” he says. “That’s a key factor in all of our recipes. We like to use the best in the business.”

A good deal for everyone: Joe Mulineaux, director of nutrition and foodservice at the University of Maryland in College Park, says soup’s biggest selling point may be its portability, especially where on-the-go students are concerned. He says the students see the item as a “quick, easy, hot meal they can grab and take with them if they choose to. They tend to go for the heartier soups than the broths, and usually you will see them digging out the good stuff and leaving the broth at the bottom of the pot. Chicken noodle is a favorite and so is chicken tortilla. And it is amazing how much chili we go through. If it’s not offered at least two or three times a week, they clamor for it.”

John Gray, senior executive chef for the University of Maryland, says the chili is a hearty con carne variety made with ground beef, kidney beans, chili powder, onions, tomato products and Tabasco. It is prepared in 50-gallon batches. The tortilla soup has a chicken broth base and consists of grilled chicken, zucchini, yellow squash and carrots. It is seasoned with cumin, chili powder and some jalapeño pepper. Crisp tortilla strips are added to each batch.

Perhaps, the biggest benefit of serving soup at the university, Mulineaux says, is its low cost factor. “Our food cost for soup is probably about 15% to 20%,” he says. “It is very cost effective. We serve it in 16-, 24- and 32-ounce bowls, and the students eat it up.”

Batches of Options

Cook/chill helps increase soup variety at Ohio University.

At West 82, a food court at Ohio University in Athens, soup is such a hot seller that Danny Grove, general manager, says the school will roll out a new cook/chill system this fall to accommodate the more than 100 varieties produced.

“It’s almost hard to explain the popularity of our soups,” Grove says. “Ever since I’ve been here there’s been such strong talk about them. Maybe it’s because a lot of other places don’t use the fresh ingredients we do or maybe it’s because it’s a fast item to grab and take away. What I do know is it is one item we make a lot of variety of.”

According to Grove, all of the soups are made from scratch with fresh ingredients and are the creations of Mary Jane Jones, associate director of OU’s culinary support center. “She has a passion for soup,” he says. “Mary Jane is constantly working on different recipes. We are always trying new varieties.”

The new cook/chill system, which currently is under construction, will give West 82 the ability to continually create new soups and send them out to all of the university’s dining operations, he notes. “We’ll know they are consistent. Plus, it will really help us streamline our operation by allowing us to mass-produce our soups.”

Matt Rapposelli, executive chef, says West 82 is known specifically for its soup and that “people have their favorites and show up on the specific days when they are served,” he says.

Grove says the soups are served in four wells on the salad bar. Each day, there is a choice of four varieties—two vegetarian or vegan options and two others that are meat based.

“We offer a variety of soups, from cream based to broth based that give customers a choice between heavier and lighter soups,” he notes. “Our most popular soup is creamy tomato tortellini, which is made of large tomato chunks and cheese tortellini.”

In addition, West 82 features a variety of other soups, including several gumbos, potato, minestrone, Navy bean and French onion. Two other varieties offered on campus are rosemary corn soup and mushroom soup. The corn soup is cream based and is made with chopped onions, diced carrots and celery, either fresh or frozen corn, rosemary, cayenne and sweet red pepper, butter and chicken broth. The mushroom soup features mushrooms, onions, garlic, fresh tarragon and rosemary, butter, flour, beef broth, lemon juice and a dash of hot pepper sauce.

West 82’s soups have become so popular they are now featured prominently on the university’s Twitter page so that everyone knows what varieties will be served on any given day.

“Our marketing person asked one day what we were going to serve, so we told him,” Grove says. “He then sent out a Tweet that said the creamy tomato tortellini was one of the soups of the day, and we were all amazed at the response it got. After that we began sending out messages daily.”


A Winning Recipe

For Robert Mayberry, executive chef at the University of Texas at Austin, creating a great-tasting, healthful soup that will be popular with students and faculty alike is both challenging and fun. Mayberry says he found a winning recipe with a pear and fennel soup. Mayberry and his team developed the soup for a contest at the chef’s conference at the University of Massachusetts Amherst this summer.

“The contest was held on the last day of the conference. Each team got a market basket with 12 items you needed to use in your recipe. Two of our items were pear and fennel, so we came up with a really nice pear and fennel soup.

The soup contains chicken, fresh fennel, pears, shallots and chicken stock. We also use an Alfredo sauce to pull it together and make it creamy.

The soup is seasoned with white pepper and a little salt, and it also features finely diced tomato and fennel to give it texture. The soup is topped with some mozzarella.

What I love about [this soup] is the way the flavors blend. You’ve got the fennel, which is a little sweet and mixes really well with the pear. [The soup] is light, has texture, a delicious flavor and a very nice mouth feel. I can see this as a really nice winter soup, warm and comforting. The soup [which won a silver medal prize at the culinary competition] is now being tested in our kitchens.

It’s in the prototype stages right now. We literally got back from the conference and got the recipe into our system. Next we’ll have our various managers and cooks taste it, make suggestions and then we’ll tweak it if need be. After that, we’ll decide which [retail] location to sell it at.

I think the soup is likely to be sold at a cash operation outlet. It is fairly flavor intensive and would be hard to make for one of our all-you-can-eat [dining halls], largely because of the cost factor.”

Fennel and Pear Soup

Six 8-oz. servings

4 oz. skinless, boneless chicken breast
3 cups chicken stock
2 fennel bulbs, cleaned
2 pears, peeled, diced
1 small Roma tomato
1 oz. shallots, finely chopped
10 oz. Alfredo sauce (no Parmesan)
Salt and pepper to taste
1/4 tsp. white pepper
6 slices of baguette, sliced 1/4-in. thick
6 slices mozzarella cheese

  1. Poach chicken breast in chicken stock until it reaches internal temperature of 165°F. Chill chicken and finely dice. Reserve stock.
  2. Reserve about 1⁄8 of each of fennel and pear for garnish; dice and rough chop the remainder. Finely chop fennel leaves for garnish and set aside. Peel, seed and finely dice Roma tomato.
  3. Sauté fennel, pear and shallot until translucent; be careful not to brown. Add chicken stock and bring to simmer. Simmer for about 10 to 15 mins. to soften vegetables.
  4. Add Alfredo sauce and let simmer for about 10 mins. With hand mixer, purée soup smooth. Simmer for 5 mins. and season with salt and white pepper.
  5. Place chicken in center of bowl. For each serving, toast one slice of bread until golden brown and immediately place mozzarella on top to melt.
  6. Place mozzarella crouton on top of chicken and sprinkle finely chopped fennel and pears around crouton. Carefully ladle 4 oz. of soup around chicken and crouton. Garnish with diced tomato and fennel.