Soup is entering its busy season.
For many operators, late autumn and winter are peak months for soups and stews, which have long been consumer favorites to fight off the cooler, cold, and even frigid temperatures that envelop much of the country during this part of the year.
But these dishes have been seeing changes in popularity in the same way many other menu items have. As a category, soup—including old favorites chicken noodle and tomato—has seen sales slip in retail as menu mentions also decline in foodservice. Still, some soups, notably rich bisques and ethnic varieties, have witnessed upticks in menu mentions, according to Menu Insights from market research firm Mintel. At the same time, soup-similar items, notably pho and ramen, have exploded.
“Tastes change, and we try to keep on top of that, whether that’s featuring something like ginger broth soup or a sriracha carrot soup,” says John Haywood, chief executive of San Diego–based Garden Fresh Restaurant Group, the company that operates the Sweet Tomatoes and Souplantation chains. While none of the newer Garden Fresh soups have overtaken core varieties like chicken noodle, clam chowder, and cream of mushroom, “there’s definitely been a movement to higher-flavor soups, as people are becoming more adventurous,” Haywood says.
The fact that so many consumers enjoy traditional soup favorites is a major reason the category “hasn’t seen a great deal of innovation on the menu,” says Diana Kelter, Mintel foodservice analyst. On the other hand, soups and stews that reach out to new flavor trends for influence “are driving customer curiosity.”
This provides an opening for operators. A Mintel report this spring found that nearly half of all consumers agree that restaurant soup is more exciting than retail packaged soup, and 15 percent of soup buyers eat soup more at restaurants. Kelter also says that soup tends to be a seasonal item tied to fall and winter, and there have been few promotions at limited-service restaurants built around these items. However, she pointed out that one type of year-round deal, which features a cup of soup with a half sandwich or small salad, has been a successful staple of bakery-cafés.
The Choose Two at McAlister’s Deli has proved to be a solid means for introducing customers to a variety of different soup options, says William Eudy, executive chef for the Focus Brands bakery-café chain. “Guests will try something unique in a Choose Two, because it is in a small cup,” he says. “We have seen more customers experiment in that format.”
Overall, however, menu mentions for soups and stews in foodservice declined 4 percent during the first quarter of this year compared with the similar period in 2015, Mintel reports. Stews alone dropped 7 percent. But Vietnamese pho and Japanese ramen are different stories. While other Asian soups, notably Chinese and Thai versions, have shown slight increases in menu mentions, those including pho jumped 25 percent over the two years ending in the first quarter this year, and mentions of ramen soared 58 percent as new eateries popped up regularly.
“There are new products we’re seeing that we don’t call it soup but instead have a different name,” says chef Mark Garcia, head of foodservice marketing and culinary for trade organization Avocados From Mexico. “Instead, it’s a noodle dish or bowl.”
Bowls, broths, and purées have become new buzzwords, rather than soups and stews. “You say ‘butternut squash soup,’ and someone will say, ‘No, that’s a purée,’” Garcia says.
What is going on with soups and stews is reflecting several millennial-driven trends for diverse cultural food, spicier items, smaller portions, and cleaner, more natural ingredients, says R.J. Harvey, global foodservice marketing manager for Potatoes USA. Bowls like pho and ramen that have broth rather than a rich sauce “are really on trend right now,” he says. “There’s something about these two dishes where you incorporate chilies that can keep you cool in the summertime and warm in winter.”
While new and unusual items catch the eye of many consumers, a large demographic wants something familiar, and that’s the reason 50–60 percent of the more than 1 million annual soup portions sold at McAlister’s Deli are varieties like broccoli cheddar, country potato, and cheesy chicken tortilla, Eudy says. “The others, the risk takers, are looking for ethnic, hardy, spicy flavors,” he adds. “I don’t have any issue at all giving that to our guests.”
Of the eight soups featured daily at Souplantation and Sweet Tomatoes, half are core favorites that vary by market, and the other half rotate once or twice monthly. The company has built a large soup library and adds six to 12 new ones annually.
“As a result, we are able to do more with soups than other concepts,” Haywood says. The soups—between 1 and 2 million gallons annually—are made daily in kitchens attached to at least one unit in a market and then shipped to other restaurants in the area.
In many ways, pho and ramen resemble soup, especially because they include broth. Pho traditionally uses beef stock, says Pat Lee, founder of Austin, Texas–based PhoNatic. “Originally it was a beef soup dish, and when beef was not available, people created a chicken pho with chicken broth,” he says.
Today, pho can have various meats, vegetables, and other items that include rice noodles, cilantro, onions, bean sprouts, lime, Thai basil, and some sort of chile—at PhoNatic, it’s jalapeño. “We also have our own spices—everyone does—but the key to good beef pho is time. We cook it for 24 hours,” Lee says. And that’s just the stock, he adds. The chicken stock takes less time because those bones break down quicker. The two most popular pho items at PhoNatic are the brisket and eye of round steak versions. Unlike soups in America that are often appetizers or side dishes, pho is a meal—in this case 50–70 ounces, including 32 ounces of broth.
Noodles are the stars in ramen, says Shin Thompson, founder and chef of Chicago’s Furious Spoon, which has grown to six units in just three years.
“One thing about ramen is that it doesn’t necessarily have to be a soup,” Thompson says, although he adds that the most popular varieties have a fish, pork, chicken, vegetable, or other broth. In the case of Furious Spoon, the most popular dishes have tonkotsu, or pork broth. Some other ramen dishes, however, come in a sauce or with a dipping sauce. “The most important ingredient is the noodle, and the structure of that noodle uses alkaline [mineral water] that makes it springy,” he says. “That alkaline added to the wheat changes the texture.”
The most popular dish at Furious Spoon is the namesake Furious Ramen, made with its homemade noodles and tonkotsu broth and flavored with a miso sauce. The standard toppings are pork belly, white pepper chicken, marinated mushrooms, scallions, a fiery sauce, garlic relish, sesame seeds, and a poached egg.
Like pho and ramen, stews are typically entrées, and so are the specialty stews at Davis, California–based Dos Coyotes Border Café, which has found success by offering versions of American regional favorites, including green chile stew and gumbo.
“Our offerings are all entrée portions,” says Mark Casale, executive chef at the nine-unit chain. “These are typically very hearty.”
The green chile stew featured in autumn and winter “has been a great success,” the chef says. “People start asking for it about the time school begins.” The somewhat spicy dish includes mild and hot fire-roasted chilies from Hatch, New Mexico, and includes chicken broth and breast meat, roasted potatoes, tomato, garlic, and various spices. The Trail Blazin’ gumbo, typically appearing just after the start of the year, is a Louisiana-style shrimp and chicken gumbo, but is given a southwestern twist with smoked New Mexican sausage rather than andouille and is topped with tortilla strips.
One of the reasons retail soup has seen sales decline is that some varieties are not seen as healthy due to high sodium or artificial ingredients many consumers eschew.
At Snap Kitchen, which focuses on healthy, handmade, grab-and-go meals, several soups are featured: two creamy but non-dairy soups made by the company, five 10-ounce varieties of Noma Lim bone broths, and five Tio chilled gazpachos. “I think of soup as the new juice,” says Tressie Lieberman, the Austin company’s chief marketing officer. She adds that soup is less sweet, and each portion is less than 200 calories.
A potential relationship between juices and soups was embraced last year by San Francisco–based Project Juice, which has added several varieties of soups to the menus of its 11 juice bars in California. Eight of the units have both hot and cold soups.
“We wanted to offer more to our guests coming into the cafés, especially in winter,” says head chef Sasha Weiss. “The bottled soups build on our cleanse business, but we also wanted to offer something a little more filling and that could be warmed up.” The soups are vegan and gluten free, and the hot items include a Mediterranean lentil stew with red potatoes, spinach, lemon juice, and other ingredients and spices. Weiss bottled green and watermelon gazpachos in summer and is also looking at a soup with noodles made with kelp.