Liquid assets

Get the recipe right and you can make millions from people's lunchtime habits. Just look at Pret a Manger. Now, in the wake of the designer sandwich and customised coffee, comes - the pounds 9 cup of soup
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Indy Lifestyle Online
My friend Morris is a fashion victim and proud of it. His problem, however, is nothing to do with clothes. Morris is a culinary fashion victim and his special weakness is for a fast and easy lunch. He used to be a Pret a Manger man, but then the very idea of a sandwich a day went a bit stale. So when someone invited him to try the very latest in lunching - the soup bar - he couldn't resist. "At first when I heard that people were paying pounds 5 for a bowl of soup, I thought, how silly of them. But then I thought, it's worth a try."

That is how he found himself one lunchtime in Soup Opera in the basement of Canary Wharf in London's Docklands, tipping little white cups full of the stuff into his mouth. He liked what he tasted from the 12 vats behind the glassed-in serving counter, and suddenly the idea of a pounds 5 bowl- a-day habit didn't seem so crazy. After all, he told himself, these weren't really soups. They were more like stews, entire meals in fact.

Campbell's, eat your heart out! Here was Roasted Pumpkin and Butternut Squash, Primavera with Pesto, Steak and Kidney Pie. But these were concoctions that Morris could take or leave, really. It was the New England Clam Chowder that proved his undoing. One taste and he was hooked. Morris was a Soup Opera man. So, even when the chowder was removed from the menu, he kept going two or three times a week. He sampled the others and kept lobbying for New England Clam Chowder to be reinstated.

I began to suspect personal involvement of some kind. What exactly, I asked, did New England Clam Chowder mean to him? "My father used to order it," he said. "You could get it in a cup or a bowl and it came with those little oyster crackers on it. It is comfort food. It's nourishing. I was appalled when I discovered this thing called Manhattan clam chowder that had tomatoes in it! Appalled." So, you see, nothing is as simple as it seems. You're shaking your head. You are above this kind of thing. You would never fork out that much for plain old soup. Certainly that's what I thought before I started looking into all this. But now I realise the error of my thinking. It was, as Bob Spiegel of Daily Soup in New York said to me, an example of "first course thinking" - the kind of small- mindedness that relegated soup to the starters section of the menu in the first place.

That will never happen again in New York where soup bars are everywhere. Besides Daily Soup, there's Soup Nutsy, Hale and Hearty and Zoot Soup. Now they are spreading, as unmistakably as tomato soup on a white tablecloth, to other US cities. We've had the coffee revolution, now here comes the soup one.

In fashion terms, soup is the new black. Even mainstream soup companies are getting involved. Campbell's has created an "Away From Home Division" with the goal of making soup available to anyone, anyplace. "We are going global with this idea," says a spokesman. Meanwhile they are looking into "Campbell branded kiosks" in "high-traffic areas". This, it seems, means airports and the like. In America, soup could soon become hard to avoid.

In London, both Soup Opera and a company called Soup Works are planning new bars and others, such as the New Convent Garden Soup Company which so far has one kiosk in Victoria station, are looking to expand. Bob Spiegel is a bit jealous of this. "That's too bad. You should wait for us to come over there!" he says from Daily Soup headquarters in New York. "London is a city made for soup. There's no doubt about it. It rains. We love rain. Rain is great!"

Bob, it must be said, is a bit of a soup bore. When I mention this he announces that soup can never be boring. And I suppose when it can make you rich - and he's probably on his way to being that - it all gets even more fascinating. Here's the story so far. Bob and two old friends founded the first Daily Soup bar in November 1995 on East 41st Street in New York. The idea was to provide an alternative to sandwiches and to make soup like mother never did. Every tub also came with bread, a piece of fruit and a cookie. This was no first course, it was a meal. It was also a hit. "On the third day we went there and saw a line snaking out the door and going halfway down the street. Then we knew it was the right decision," he says.

Now there are 10 Daily Soup bars and the company employs 150 people. It serves 800 to 1,000 customers per day, per store, and three new outlets are under construction, including one in Boston. "You know it's a very hard product," says Bob. "It's not like bagels or burgers or pizza. We have 500 different soups and there is a high level of bacteria involved. Some have to be refrigerated at 38 degrees, some need to be at over 165 to 170 degrees. It's very volatile." Then, all of a sudden, Bob gets emotional. The stock, he says, is made with lots of love. The staff, he says, are happy and excited. Soup, he says, is his life. "They know here how deep it goes. I eat, drink and talk soup all day long."

Johnny Acton can go one better than that. He actually used to work for the UK food magazine EatSoup and one day his editor decided it would be a great idea to do a story on eating soup. So Johnny started eating soup in New York. "I thought, `What a great idea!' And I also thought that it could work in Britain. There's not another product like it. It's ancient, universal and familiar." The idea lay dormant as Johnny worked away as an obituary writer for the Times in London. Then he returned to New York for further soup research. Soup is seen as seasonal and that cannot be good. Business can drop from 15 to 30 per cent in the summer at the soup bar. It's the kind of gap that gazpacho simply cannot fill. But, others say, that only means there is more room for the likes of watermelon chicken or avocado shrimp.

Soup Works, Johnny's new company, is opening its first bar in D'Arblay Street in the West End of London at the end of November and two further bars are planned for next year. It will be offering four serving sizes - including a snack that Johnny calls a "soup cappuccino". And, at the age of 32, Johnny is on his way to becoming a soup bore too. "Soup," he says, "has an awful lot going for it. It's come a long way from when it was a can of Campbell's or a packet of Knorr. That was low-status stuff. Now it's delicious and classy. If this can happen in New York, it can happen here eventually. It's healthy and it's global. Those are two buzzwords at the moment. I've been to Greenland and they've got their own soup. Every culture produces soup."

This may be so, but not every culture is trying to sell it for pounds 9.55 a go. I mention this to Janie Dear of Soup Opera, who points out that that price is for 32oz (which, in Soup Opera jargon, is called a "Ravenous" size) of St Tropez fish. This, she notes, does actually have ravenous-size chunks of prawn and the like in it. Such things do not come cheap. "You can have a good meal for pounds 2.95," she says. True, but only if you fancy a "Peckish" (12oz) size of tomato bisque. "We aren't trying to compete with McDonald's, you know," she says. This is obvious from the packaging. Soup Opera is worth going to if solely to acquire the transparent bag with the S logo in lightest turquoise. "I'm keeping mine with my Joseph bags," says one customer. In this bag, every customer gets their soup (the third tub size is 16oz or "Hungry"), a piece of fruit and a piece of bread. (You can choose between foccacia and ciabatta, Mighty White being unavailable.) But it what is in the tub that really matters and this is something that Janie and her three partners have known from the beginning.

All have experience in the City and so figure that they knew a thing about what their co-workers wanted. Janie's husband, Paddy, is a hedge- fund developer and Greville Ward works for a stockbroker in New York while his wife, Christine, is a former PA to the Duchess of York. The Wards still live in New York and the original idea of bringing the soup bar to London was hatched over a bottle of wine a few years ago. Unlike most such plans, something actually came of it and the first thing they did was to hire a chef. "The worst thing that could have happened would have been to open with something like tomato, carrot and coriander, or bean and something," says Janie.

No danger of that. Soup Opera opened six months ago and it started with 30 different soups. Now, Janie says, anything seems possible ("though I guess fish and chips might be a bit difficult"). In December Soup Opera is opening another bar in the West End. More are planned. "We would like to do a chain. We would like to be the Prets of the soup world. Can London take a soup shop on every corner? We'll wait and see but it definitely has a sandwich shop on every one."

Sceptical? Well cast your mind all the way back to 1986 when two men named Julian Metcalfe and Sinclaire Beecham got fed up with the typically limp British sandwich. They borrowed pounds 17,000 and set up Pret a Manger. The latest accounts show a turnover of pounds 38.1m with pre-tax profits leaping from just over pounds 600,000 to pounds 1.5m. With results like that, it is believed the two intend to take the business to the stock market, possibly next year. The price tag is said to be rather close to pounds 100m. Not bad for making a better sandwich.

But if soup is the new sandwich, then what might be the new soup? Well, here's a hint. It too is served with a ladle and is pure comfort food. It's already on the breakfast menu at Soup Opera and will be at Soup Works too. "But we're going to jazz it up with chocolate drops and things," says Johnny Acton. He's talking about porridge, of course. I can hardly wait to tell Morris

Where the soups are

Soup Opera on the Concourse Level at Canary Wharf can be reached on 0171-513 0880.

Soup Works is opening its first bar at 9 D'Arblay Street, London W1, in late November. Then you can also order from its website (www.soupworks. co.uk). The head office can be reached on 0171-248 7687.

The New Covent Garden Soup Company currently has a kiosk at Victoria station and says that more are in the works. 0181-960 0229.

Daily Soup can be found at www.dailysoup.com

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