Restaurateurs understand that soup can be heart warming, popular with customers, perceived as being healthful and, if prepared correctly, low in food cost.
At the same time, though, they also are finding that it’s good for reinforcing the brand and even encouraging creativity among staff.
Creativity and health seem to be key drivers in soup sales, according to Datassential MenuTrends, which has found that formerly popular varieties like clam chowder or French onion today have less menu penetration than they did in 2008, thereby leaving room for the addition of signature items.
Meanwhile, Datassential research shows that soups prepared with vegetables — including butternut squash and broccoli — are growing the most rapidly in terms of popularity. A wider variety of beans also are being mentioned in soup selections, the research firm said, as are onion varieties such as scallions and leeks.
It’s not all about health, however. Indulgent ingredients like loaded baked potatoes, beer and bacon also are being mentioned more often in soup descriptions, as are cheeses like Gruyère and Parmesan.
Both cheese and broccoli are ingredients in LongHorn Steakhouse’s new soup, which was added to the menu at the end of September. The Atlanta-based chain’s executiveKurt Hankins said the Broccoli Asiago Cheddar Soup is a take on the popular broccoli- cheese soup.
The dish, which sells for $5.29, is prepared with broccoli florets in a blend of Asiago and aged white Cheddar, “with subtle notes of onion, garlic and spices,” Hankins said. It is topped with shaved Parmesan.
Soups are helping Frank Berta, chef-owner of Frank’s Kitchen in Denver, to attract customers and draw on his staff’s talents more effectively. Recently, he introduced a “soup of the week” promotion.
“It gives us a way to inject a little bit more variety, and gives our regulars another option after they’ve had the jerkor brisket three or four times,” he said. “It gets them wondering what we have on the stove this week.”
Berta said he put his talented part-time cook Hadiya Brown in charge of developing the soups.
“It gives her a little bit more ownership and incentive because otherwise she’s cooking my [recipes],” he said.
He charges $4 to $5 per portion for these low-food-cost items, which have included chicken tortilla, tomato and vegetable bisque.
“We’re just kind of going to go around the world with soups,” said Berta, whose family comes from the Piedmont region of Italy. “I’d love to do a handmade tortellini in brodo, which I grew up with in Spring Valley, Ill.” Future soups will range from gumbo to menudo, he added.
Berta is promoting the weekly soup in the restaurant’s social media outlets and in an e-mail newsletter that includes a coupon for a free cup of soup.
“It gets them in the door, and they’re almost always going to buy something else,” he said.
Of the four most popular soups — clam chowder, French onion, minestrone and chicken noodle — Datassential said the Italian vegetable soup has lost the most ground in recent years, now on 7 percent fewer menus than it was in 2008.
But Gerard Craft, chef-owner of the new Pastaria in St. Louis, is doing well with his version by enhancing it with house-made alphabet pasta.
“When I saw the die [for letter-shaped pasta], I knew I had to have it,” said Craft, who grew up eating alphabet soup. Pastaria’s version is in tune with other trends, too. It’s made with cranberry beans and topped with grated Grana Padano cheese, a type of Parmesan. The recipe also calls for celery, onions and carrots in a tomato broth and vegetable stock. It is priced at $5.95 for a cup and $7.95 for a bowl.
That’s the same price as Pastaria’s Roasted Butternut Squash Soup, which is prepared by adding roasted squash to onions and garlic that have been sweated with thyme and olive oil. Craft covers that in equal amounts of water and cream, and simmers the mixture for a couple of hours “so the flavors are really developed and really smooth.”
He finishes it with olive oil, torn croutons, dried sage and pickled onions.
“It’s a very rich, thick, luxurious soup, so we put some pickled red onions on it to cut that a little bit,” he said.
Soup reinforces tradition at R’evolution, the joint project of chefs John Folse and Rick Tramonto in New Orleans, where rustic dishes such as gumbo are given fine-dining flourishes.
The $14 Death by Gumbo — named long ago by former New York Times restaurant critic Craig Claiborne at one of Folse’s previous restaurants — contains all of the ingredients of the popular Cajun dish in a surprising presentation.
To prepare the dish Folse first makes rice flavored with ground sassafras leaves, locally called filé. He stuffs a whole quail with the filé rice, pecan-smoked andouille sausage, a poached oyster, parsley and green onions. Next he poaches the bird in a gumbo base that includes a dark roux with the Cajun/Creole “holy trinity” of onions, celery and bell peppers.
“We’re able to ladle a nice clean broth into the soup bowl, and then when the diner cuts into the quail, all the ingredients spill out,” Folse said.
Death by Gumbo is the most popular soup at R’evolution, which opened last year, but Corn and Crab Cappuccino for $10 is quickly gaining ground.
“It’s Rick’s and my rendition of the classic cream-based crab-and-corn soup of the South,” Folse said.
The soup is made with a rich crab stock and heavy whipping cream, and served with a spoon of jumbo lump crab, corn and herbs that the diner adds to the soup. It’s garnished with corn silk, popcorn and sliced truffles.
At the Beacon Hill Hotel & Bistro in Boston, chef Josh Lewin found a use in his soup for a generally overlooked fruit: crabapples.
“Apples came early this year to New England, so we really had time to get our head around them,” he said. Allendale, the only farm actually located in Boston, had old trees dropping the fruit all over the place, Lewin said, so he decided to give them a try.
“Some of them tasted quite good,” he said. But they’re small, a pain to peel, and while they possessed decent levels of sweetness and acidity, their texture wasn’t very crisp.
“We’d already made the apple butter for the season, and we wanted to make sure these little guys found a home,” he said.
To prepare the soup, he first cuts off the blossom ends, slices the crabapples in half or quarters, removes the core and cooks them with parsnips, onions, carrots, rosemary and sage in vegetable stock containing a little apple cider. He then adds a fair amount of black pepper, purées the mixture and finishes it with cream.
He garnishes the soup with a jam made of locally foraged rose petals and a fruit called autumn olives, which were introduced to New England as an ornamental shrub and taste like cranberries. He tops the soup with anadama bread crumbs, a hearty specialty of the Cape Ann, Mass., area north of Boston, made with molasses and cornmeal.
Lewin served the soup at a food festival promoting local products, and it was such a hit he added it to the restaurant’s menu for $9 a bowl.