Soup’s On!

Originally printed in the February 2019 issue of Produce Business.

A bounty of produce is changing how chefs cook and the way Americans are eating.

In an effort to cater to growing consumer demand for tasty, better-for-you options, chefs at a variety of restaurants around the country are exploring interesting, cost-effective and creative ways to incorporate more produce into their scratch-made soups.

Even though vegetable-based soup has been a staple in kitchens for hundreds of years, its popularity continues today — unabated. Tomato-, mushroom-, squash- and potato-based varieties are just some of the most desired varieties on U.S. menus, and they’re served at just about every concept and daypart, as appetizers, entrees and desserts.

Along with those tried-and-true veggies, consumers and chefs alike also are showing unabashed love for other types of produce: kale, known now as a “super vegetable” for its rich color and texture; mushrooms, which are savored for their umami properties and incredible flavor; and pumpkin, for its rich heartiness.

Fresh, Local And Healthy

Whether they’re accompanying a sandwich or salad, or are served as a main bowl-focused meal, these veggie-centric soups are offering restaurateurs the opportunity to give guests — especially their younger, Millennial-based customers — the chance to sample fresh, local ingredients prepared in innovative, bold and flavorful ways. They also can create a feeling of indulgence at an affordable price and without overindulging on their diets.

The soups, which run the gamut — from savory to sweet, and creamy to bouillon-based, — combine plant-based ingredients with hearty spicy and ethnic flavor profiles to create a cornucopia of great-tasting, healthful and inexpensive menu options. They are the ultimate comfort food.

Not only are these produce-based soups popular with restaurant customers, but chefs also love making them and for several reasons, too, including their lower food cost and ease of production. They are one of the few items that take relatively little skill, time and equipment to make from scratch. They also can be prepared using premium, value-added products, such as stock bases, pre-cut vegetables and seasoning blends, and can be changed up to be more weather-appropriate. For example, during the colder months, a Minestrone soup could feature seasonally available produce, such as root vegetables, as opposed to Spring-appropriate vegetables when the weather turns warmer.

Yes, operators everywhere, from colleges and universities to casual-dining chains to independent restaurants, are embracing this veggie-centric trend.

Jesse Gideon, corporate chef and chief operating officer of the Atlanta-based, fast-casual Fresh to Order chain, says, today’s diners love them because they fit perfectly with their desire to lead healthier, more sustainable lifestyles that emphasize a reduced consumption of animal-based proteins, especially when they dine out.

“The younger generations really are driving the demand for better-for-you products,” he says. “They are super cognizant of everything they consume, and that’s why you are starting to see a lot of veggie-based meals in general. Millennials and Gen Zs are more educated about what they’re putting into their bodies and which foods are going to make a difference on their long-term health.”

That overall awareness, he says, is leading to more adoption and acceptance from consumers of veggie-centric items in general and, particularly, of soups.

Gideon also says the “comfort food” aspect is helping to propel the acceptance of produce-centric soups, as evidenced by the popularity of his wild mushroom soup.

“The focus on better-for-you foods and ingredients is permitting people to be more willing to try different things, like a carrot-ginger or curry soup,” he says. “Our mushroom soup is probably our No. 1 selling soup. It’s scratch-made, 100 percent natural and has no preservatives or artificial colors in it.”

To create the soup’s base, he combines vegetable and mushroom stocks. He also uses three types of mushrooms: Shiitake, Portobello and Cremini, which he sears and reduces with garlic, olive oil and additional seasonings. He then adds a few different types of alcohol, which subsequently burn off, to glaze the mushrooms and enhance their flavor. Cream, the primary source of fat content in the soup, creates a rich, smooth texture. Half bowls sell for around $4, and full bowls are $5.50 each.

Millennials And Gen Z Demand

At UMass Dining, which serves 50,000 meals per day at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, demand for produce-based soups tends to be driven by Millennial and Gen Z customers, says executive director Ken Toong. “They resonate with everyone, especially during the colder months. Recently, we incorporated a few new produce-centric soups into the menu, and they’ve been very popular. This semester, for example, we started offering some creamier varieties, even though they’re not always made with heavy cream — such as sweet potato and leek, and cauliflower-red lentil — that are showing themselves to be more popular than chicken noodle or beef barley.”

The university’s butternut squash soup, however, is made from locally sourced, fresh butternut squash, water, garlic, unsalted butter, parsley, ginger and other seasonings, and cream.

Nevertheless, Toong notes squash also can be cooked in a broth and pureed to create a creamy and silky texture that gives the perception of richness and can be made easily to satisfy vegan or low-fat requests.

Food industry experts say the continuing interest in farm-to-fork ingredients can be credited for the increase in these soups’ popularity. Why? Consultant Maeve Webster says it’s because consumers are extremely interested in knowing where their food comes from and how it is sourced. By using fresh, seasonal produce and sourcing it from local farms and vendors, restaurateurs can tell their guests compelling stories about the soup and its value to them, their diners and the individuals who grew and harvested the ingredients.

T.J. McConnaughey, executive chef of Olympia Provisions, a farm-to-table-driven restaurant in Portland, OR, says he is excited to regularly offer his customers a variety of produce-centric soups. He focuses on using seasonal and sustainable roots and vegetables and is always experimenting with the entire vegetable, including its leafy greens, to not only increase the intensity of its flavor profile, but also reduce his back-of-the-house food waste.

“We like to use as much of the vegetable as we can,” he says. “That’s our philosophy in general. We try to make as big an impact as possible with our guests without creating too much of a carbon footprint.”

For several years now, a number of chefs have adopted the nose-to-tail method of using the entire ingredient to cut down on food waste. This is especially true regarding the use of potatoes, says Don Odiorne, who recently exited his post as vice president of foodservice of the Idaho Potato Commission. One example, he notes, is operators taking their unused baked potatoes and turning them into what is now a menu staple at many steakhouses and casual-dining chains: the loaded baked potato soup.

Healthy Comfort Foods

Olympia Provisions’ McConnaughey says one of the restaurant’s most popular soups during the colder months is a truffle-celeriac soup made of local white and black truffle and celeriac root and topped with croutons and chives. The soup started out as a limited-time offer during a truffle showcase some years ago but became so popular the restaurant added it as a menu staple. More recently, the chef introduced his guests to a butternut squash soup with curry crème fraiche and a straight-up celery root puree that he says defines healthful comfort foods.

“Healthful comfort is a big part of how we eat now when we eat for pleasure,” he says. “Collectively, people are trying to be healthful and make better choices across the board. At the same time, they want to have something that evokes feeling, memories. That’s why veggie soups are so popular with all of our customers, no matter how old they are.”

Gideon agrees, saying produce-based soups, at their core, are recognized as universal comfort food.

“Imagine it’s snowing outside and I say to you, ‘What do you think about a cup of tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich?’ I bet everyone would immediately start thinking about his or her childhoods and go, ‘Yes.’ ”

Speaking of grilled cheese, Steven Klores, chef and co-owner of GCDC Grilled Cheese Bar in Washington, DC, asserts his restaurant’s scratch-made tomato soup is not only the perfect accompaniment to the fast-casual concept’s variety of gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches, but also a perfect meal by itself, especially for its many vegetarian customers.

“Offering a scratch-made tomato soup seemed like a no-brainer,” he says. “A lot of our customers love to dip their grilled cheese in it; it’s just a great paring. And some of our other guests enjoy eating it alone, with a side of toast. We have a lot of vegetarian and some vegan customers, and we try to listen to them and give them what they want. This soup seemed to be something they really wanted.”

Klores says he makes the soup with crushed California tomatoes, a mirepoix of onion, tomato, celery, garlic, Italian seasonings and other spices. It is available in half-cup, full-cup and 16-ounce bowl size servings at price points of $2, $4 and $6, respectively.

Another tomato soup aficionado is Martha Hoover, proprietor of Café Patachou, a healthy-dining, farm-to-table concept in Indianapolis. The restaurant, which caters to a large clientele of vegetarian customers, has been serving a hugely popular tomato-artichoke soup since 1989. It’s made with local and organic tomatoes, artichokes and spices, topped with shaved Parmesan and house-made croutons.

“It comes from a secret recipe and has been so popular, it’s never left our menu,” she says. “It is well-loved by guests of all ages and is just really delicious.”

Hoover also notes she is consistently seeing an increase in demand for a variety of veggie-based soups, which she attributes to the rising trend of vegetarian and vegan diets and lifestyles around the country. To accommodate the demand for more veggie-driven soups, the restaurateur is rotating in a number of other varieties, including vegan creamy cauliflower and vegan split pea.

Cold Comfort

Although the majority of soups typically are served hot, some chefs have started experimenting with cold soup options in both sweet and savory flavor profiles. Denver-based chef Dave Woolley says gazpacho, a chilled tomato-based soup, as well as a watermelon and dragon fruit combination are popular with guests during the summer months. Mango also is showing up in some cold soup applications. At Tapa Toro restaurant in Orlando, FL, chef Mark Harmer is serving up fresh mango gazpacho made with the exotic fruit, tomato, red bell pepper, cucumber, shallots, garlic, salt, sherry vinegar, paprika, olive oil and ciabatta. He says it’s his way of taking a traditional cold soup and putting a new twist on it that appeals to a younger customer base.

“The access to and availability of these items is increasing, and that is the next part of the evolution, but the real innovation comes from making the sweet and savory soup,” says Woolley.

National Mango Board communications manager Angela Serna asserts she sees an innovative blurring of the lines between pureed soups and smoothies, especially where savory smoothies are concerned. “Those will answer Millennials’ cry for flavorful and satisfying plant-based items made from natural ingredients that are naturally nutritious,” she says.

Webster says more cold soups are catching on, but that most often are available at fine-dining and casual-dining restaurants rather than at quick-service operations. Although some operators are working on sweet soups, they are still in the very early stages and almost exclusively at fine dining establishments.

If you’re wondering what to expect next when it comes to innovative produce-based soups, think big, bold and ethnic flavors, the experts say. According to Odiorne, more savory and spicy varieties will be showing up on menus, featuring ingredients such as jalapeno peppers, ghost peppers, chilies, ginger, turmeric, garam masala, curries, cilantro, kale, ramps, vegetable stocks and roasted corn. And Webster says a variety of world cuisines from Korea, Vietnam, Japan, Nordic countries, Central and South America and the South Pacific, are going to take center stage.

“The future of food is wide open to many possibilities,” notes UMass’ Toong. “The food industry is going to continue to be impacted by technology, but at the end of the day, it will all be about healthy, sustainable and delicious food.”