Sponsored by Blount Fine Foods
In an effort to generate traffic and differentiate their concept from the competition, restaurateurs are stirring up consumer excitement by menuing an array of on-trend signature soups.
Whether they are featuring soups made on-premise from scratch or relying on labor-saving, high-quality prepared selections, savvy operators are finding that well-crafted signature soups can generate interest among adventurous customers.
For many operators, signature soups constitute an important part of the dining experience. “We have kind of a cult following.” says Nick Komandis, the owner of the five-unit Hansel ’n Griddle concept in New Jersey. Homemade soups created by Komandis' mother give the fast-casual chain a mom-and-pop quality which keeps customers coming back.
The number of soups offered daily can range from one or two to six or seven, with a fifty-fifty split between comfortable favorites and new flavors. Comfort soups include mushroom and lentil, broccoli and cheese, and corn chowder.
Cuban black bean or garbanzo beans with lemon provide a more ethnic flair, while a Latin-inflected chicken tortilla recipe is on the drawing board.
Ethnic gains ground
Research firm Technomic Inc., in fact, says ethnic soups in general are gaining in popularity. Poblano and chipotle are both Latin flavors, but cumin (popular in Middle Eastern, Asian and Mediterranean cooking) and saffron (popular in Europe and Asia) are also on the upswing (up 13.6 percent and 9.1 percent, respectively, in the past year).
Other ethnic flavors include Freshii's Tortilla Soup with spicy chicken tortilla broth, brown rice, kale, black beans, corn, tomatoes, cilantro and avocado, served with gluten-free tortilla chips; and Houlihan’s Chicken Tortilla Soup, which debuted on its New Year’s Eve fixed-price menu.
According to Technomic, some of the fastest-growing soup flavors are:
- Almond (+55.6 percent year over year)
- Poblano (+39.1 percent)
- Sea salt (+28.6 percent)
- Chipotle (+17.9 percent)
- Buffalo (+16.7 percent).
Fresh To Order, self-described as a “fine-fast” casual concept, also prepares soups from scratch. “People come for the soup,” says Jesse Gideon, president and corporate chef of the 13-unit chain. “We make gallons every day.”
Gideon explains, “Our customers want traditional soups done well,” so Fresh To Order adds a signature twist to each selection. For example, a wild mushroom soup contains three types of mushrooms — portobello, shiitake and cremini — and three kinds of alcohol.
Ethnic-flavored selections include lentil with Moroccan spices, potato bisque, coconut curry and Vietnamese lemongrass and tofu. A deconstructed chicken tortilla soup features roasted corn relish garnished with tortilla crisps on top. Gideon says the chain is developing a version of Vietnamese pho with star anise, cinnamon and a few other flavors added to the traditional aromatic herbs and spices. “It will be healthy and have a kick of flavor,” he says.
Evolving ingredient palette
Without question, today's soups are evolving, often demonstrated by the addition of unexpected — and sometimes adventurous — ingredients. Research firm Datassential published a four-year look at the most popular descriptors and fastest-growing ingredients in soups, stews and chilis:
- Gluten-free (+332 percent on soup and stew menus in the past four years)
- Vegan (+223 percent)
- Kale (+153 percent)
- Belly (+135 percent) Typically pork belly used in ramens and other Asian-inspired soups, but also options like salmon belly.
- Butternut squash (+107 percent)
Mike Kostyo, senior publications manager for Datassential, says, “Soup is a comforting classic, which makes it a prime menu candidate for offering up new ingredients and flavors.” Customers may be more willing to try something different if it's in a familiar dish like chicken noodle soup. Le Pain Quotidien, for example, reformulated the classic chicken noodle soup — the most common soup variety on restaurant menus — by including on-trend zoodles, or zucchini noodles.
Kostyo also adds that “Squash soups are growing rapidly. We really saw a spike in growth in just the past year alone. While butternut is easily the most common squash variety, we're also seeing next-level options like kabocha, honeynut and calabaza. At Clover Club in New York, the Creamy Kabocha Squash Soup is finished with black truffles and ricotta.”
Another trend is using alcohol to bring depth of flavor and a sense of “premiumization” to soups. For example: Maggiano’s Little Italy recently debuted Chianti Onion Soup on its seasonal menu. BRAVO! Cucina Italiana introduced Lobster Bisque with sherry and shrimp on its two-course combo menu.
Homemade made easy
While homemade flavors are trending upward, operators who want the taste of homemade without having a chef in the kitchen or who are looking to save on labor can opt for high-quality, flavorful prepared soups instead.
For example, Blount Fine Foods, based in Fall River, Mass., showcases a line of Premium soups that taste like they came from a home kitchen, says Bob Sewall, executive vice president of sales and marketing. Blount produces transparent, “clean label” soups and sides, meaning “wholesome” and familiar with no artificial ingredients.
Operators can choose from a wide range of flavors and preparations. Blount selections include Potato, Cheddar and Bacon; Black Bean Adobe; Chicken and Poblano Pepper; and Chicken Artichoke Florentine. The company also features a large selection of traditional flavors, from Lobster Bisque to Corn Chowder.
Blount’s new signature preparations are proving to be popular, Sewall says. A turkey sausage soup with tomato, cheese and pasta appeals to diners looking for a healthy alternative. A lasagna soup, also with turkey sausage, provides customers with an indulgent meal. Another new selection is an Asian Noodle Bowl with chicken, ramen, vegetables and broth.
Whether traditional or more exotic preparations are on the menu, flavorful signature soups are helping operators drive sales and increase traffic.