Soup's on ... that is, fresh and healthy soup

According to market researcher Mintel’s June 2018 report on U.S. soup, center-store sales within this $6.9-billion category have been stagnant for years, with condensed wet soup declining 2 percent and ready-to-heat wet soup increasing only 0.3 percent since 2013. 

But Mintel forecasts that the category overall will increase 9 percent in sales during the next five years. Fresh-prepared and refrigerated prepared soup are poised for significant growth, say experts, while soup kits may have potential as well.

Beyond having a couple of soup wells in a salad bar or hot bar, a number of grocery retailers dazzle with dozens of delicious fresh-made offerings that rotate daily and seasonally. 

Not every retailer should take the plunge, however, cautions Ryan Powell, vice president of merchandising for Dallas-based Symphony RetailAI. Foraying into fresh-prepared soups requires a big commitment and needs to be data-driven, he says.  

“The first challenge is the infrastructure,” Powell observes. “Can you do it in-house or not?” This depends on such factors as store layout, kitchen capacity and the retailer’s existing methodology for developing, making and merchandising fresh-prepared items.
Dayton, Ohio-based Dorothy Lane Market (DLM) has become a destination for fresh soup, thanks largely to Culinary Director Carrie Walters and her team at the retailer’s three stores. Although the gourmet grocery chain sold prepared soup before Walters joined the company some 20 years ago, she has expanded and modernized the program, developing many new recipes over the years that she refines in her test kitchen. 

Today, DLM offers more than 30 fresh-prepared soups, which are made from scratch and classified by season. The retailer serves fresh cold soups such as corn gazpacho, pineapple jalapeño and strawberry watermelon gazpacho only during the summer months, for example, while certain classic hot soups, including chicken noodle and tomato bisque, are available to customers year-round. 

Each DLM store has a self-serve soup area in the deli department with five or six wells and a seafood soup area with two to four wells. Prepared fresh each morning, most of these soups rotate daily as well as seasonally, with 70 percent of customers consuming them in the retailer’s café seating areas, Walters says.

Because the three stores — in Dayton’s Washington Park neighborhood and the suburbs of Oakwood and Springboro, Ohio — have demographically distinct clienteles, they offer different selections in their soup bars.

Besides serving soup in its hot bars, Dorothy Lane Market has an extensive assortment of fresh-prepared refrigerated soups at each store as well as a handful of frozen fresh-prepared soup choices. “All of the seasonal flavors are usually available at any given time in any of our stores in the cold soup case,” Walters says, noting that DLM will happily heat up a refrigerated soup for a customer who wants to consume it in the store.

With four stores in Sonoma County, Santa Rosa, Calif.-headquartered Oliver’s Market captures the area’s penchant for health and wellness with its standout soup program. The retailer offers 38 rotating varieties of fresh-prepared soup, some of which are seasonal. Each store has a soup bar with four to six wells.

“We try to balance out the selections each day, with choices like meat, vegetarian, vegan, cream-based and Oliver’s Fit Friendly soup, which is 400 calories or less per serving,” says Roxanne Abruzzo-Backman, the food service coordinator for Oliver’s Market. “We are also moving more toward organic and non-GMO selections.”

Oliver’s tries to use California-produced ingredients in its prepared soups. “Our customers love the fact that our soups are made in-house and with quality local or seasonal ingredients wherever possible, and they appreciate the range of offerings,” Abruzzo-Backman says. “All of our stores have indoor and outdoor seating for our customers to sit and enjoy their food.”

Similar to Dorothy Lane Market, Oliver’s offers a larger selection of refrigerated prepared soups in each store’s “cold Grab ’n Go wall,” in addition to the hot bar options.  

“We have a regular clientele coming in week after week for their favorites like clam chowder, tomato basil, chicken noodle and cream of crimini mushroom, to name just a few,” Abruzzo-Backman adds.

To promote fresh-prepared soups, supermarkets should tout their offerings’ better-for-you attributes, their soothing and uplifting characteristics as a comfort food, and the limited-time availability of seasonal varieties, Webster advises. 

“Soups are so versatile that they can incorporate virtually any produce or herbs in-season,” she says. “That includes making seasonal variations of traditional soups to keep those soups interesting and relevant.”

In marketing and merchandising its prepared soups, Dorothy Lane Market stresses they are made with fresh ingredients that customers can purchase in its stores, Walters notes.

“Retailers should also consider how best to use their soup program to promote other areas of the store, from fresh to center aisle,” Webster adds. “Bundling and cross-promotions to drive sales overall that incorporate — or springboard off of their soups — can be highly effective if the soup program is strong.”

Schierhorn is a freelance writer from Wheaton, Ill.