Soup goes out to lunch

The latest concept making an appearance on the lunchtime scene is soup. With several New York style single-product outlets taking off, branding is top of the menu.

The vogue for US-style single-product food outlets looks set to continue in the UK, with clearly conceived soup outlets starting to appear among the branded sandwich and coffee shops.

This week the newly established company Soup Works revealed plans to open a pilot outlet in London’s Covent Garden in October, and aims to open a further eight in the next two years. Scott Libby Heming is working on branding and interiors.

Meanwhile, the New Covent Garden Soup Company, which set up a cart-unit in London’s Victoria station last November, plans to open a further 50 outlets in the next five years. An initial pilot at Euston was halted. Genetic Design Partnership is working to evolve the existing unit, created by Proteus Design and Strategy Consultants, into six new formats.

And Soup Opera has appointed Lippa Pearce and Din Associates to work on two outlets, after a successful launch of a pilot in Canary Wharf this spring (DW 8 May). The groups will handle branding and interiors respectively.

The soup concept is the latest in a series of single-product outlets. Made famous in New York by the Soup Kitchen, the most high-profile branded chain over there is Daily Soup, which has seven sites in the city.

“We want to do what Pret Manger has done with sandwiches and Seattle with coffee – taking a product, packaging it differently and offering a bigger variety,” says Soup Works managing director Bruce Isaacs.

Whether soup can replicate the success of coffee remains to be seen. The demand for good quality soup is increasing, rising by 233 per cent between 1991 and 1995 and set to grow a further 31 per cent by the year 2001 (see table).

But soup is generally regarded as a down-market, winter food. “I tend to think of soup as being a winter thing. It will be much harder to sell in the summer,” says one food retail analyst of the soup shop concept.

Soup Works will tackle this issue head-on. “The identity is designed to reflect the seasons and will be changed bi-annually to deflect the myth that soup is just a winter food. Part of our project is to educate people about soup,” says Scott Libby Heming creative director Andy Scott. There is talk of supplementing the menu with fruit smoothies in the summer months.

Lippa Pearce designer Rachel Dinnis also talks of the need to educate the market on the benefits of soup.

“[With Soup Opera] we had to dispel the preconceived notions of soup to make it into a new form of eating. We do ‘fresh soup meals’ not snacks, which also include a choice of bread and fresh fruit,” she says.

“There is a British mistrust of soup. They are not quite sure of the quality of the ingredients. We want to expose the quality of our food and so we use transparent packaging and this theme runs through all the design. The identity, for example, is a transparent logo,” adds Dinnis.

The soup outlets produce a wide variety of home-made broths and aim primarily for the lunch-time professional market. They see their main competition as the branded sandwich bars and coffee outlets.

Scott sees the core brand of the Soup Works concept he is working on as “good value, filling, healthy, quality, variety, clean, vibrant and honest”, and says the design elements of the brand will reflect that.

Meanwhile, Din Associates designer Terry Grant defines Soup Opera’s core values as “quality, fresh, variety, and homely”.

Both operations are well aware of the need to offer an alternative proposition and are therefore keen to stick pretty much to the core soup offering.

“A lot of places add soup as an afterthought. If we broaden too much there is a sense the soup might be seen as a low-quality add-on. The soup is our point of difference,” says Grant.

With US Soup outlets such as Daily Soup, Soup Nutsu and Soup Kitchen thriving, a well placed source says “I’d be very surprised if some of the soup manufacturers didn’t consider this type of move in the future”.

A Heinz spokeswoman confirms that while it has no plans as yet, it “hasn’t ruled out the option”.

But for the time being the seasonal problem remains. “It is going to be extremely difficult to make the product tempting in the summer. It’s like ice cream in the winter,” says a retail research specialist.

Souper Douper also has an exclusive deal to operate US ice cream manufacturer Ben & Jerry’s scoop-shops, recently introduced to this country. It is working on various types of cross-over between the soup and the ice cream operations.

Now it might be on to something there.

Interesting nuggets:

Since 1996, the number of soup outlets has mushroomed to 25 in New York

Between 1991 and 1995 fresh soup sales in the UK increased by 233 per cent and are forecast to grow by 31 per cent between now and 2001, (Mintel International)

Around 5 per cent of customers at mobile food and drink sellers purchase soup, (Mintel International)

In 1990, 73 per cent of the working population took a proper lunch, compared to 44 per cent in 1997, (Key Note), increasing the take-away market

New Covent Garden Soup Company’s Victoria and Euston station outlets were selling around 1000 cups of soup each a day in January. Directors hope the new soup outlets can exceed 300-400 servings a day, according to the season

Some New York chains currently sell between 800 – 1000 servings per outlet per day with seasonal variation, according to Souper Douper directors.

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