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.”