Revving Up for Soup Success

Even with a changed foodservice landscape in delis, soup remains a strong seller.

With comfort food at the forefront since the pandemic hit in early spring, soup would typically benefit. What has taken a hit in supermarket delis are the self-serve bars, of which this item is a key component.

Yet, with sales of grab-and-go meals on the rise, prepackaged soup in delis provides an opportunity retailers should not pass up.

“Soup falls into the prepared food category for delis, which had been doing well prior to the pandemic,” says Eric Richard, industry relations coordinator, International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association (IDDBA), Madison, WI. “People are not shopping like they did before for prepared food options.”

The association conducted two webinars recently to see where hot food bars stood and how they could be resurrected in a safer format.

“There are some nice ideas that retailers and equipment manufacturers came up with to modify self-serve bars for soup sales,” says Richard. “One was the use of a heating component and having soup prepackaged in these bars [instead of in accessible self-serve crocks]. We think more retailers will be converting cases to better reflect consumer patterns.”

Fresh soup differs from the canned variety in the grocery aisle in terms of quality and reason of purchasing. While canned soup is a stock up item, fresh soup from a bar or prepackaged for grab-and-go is for more immediate consumption. By modifying deli prepared soup’s format, it would not only make it more appealing in today’s climate, but also offer something convenient to purchase and consume that day or within a short time period.

“Both webinars are available on the IDDBA website and show how retailers can modify their hot food bars to accommodate these products,” says Richard. “There will obviously be ebbs and flows, and retailers need to be cognizant of that. But it is possible to modify processes and cases to make it easier for consumers to purchase soup and let them know the products are still available.”

The Current Climate

Robert Sewall, vice president, sales and marketing at Fall River, MA-based Blount Fine Foods, agrees that delis are reimagining their soup bars with great success. “Retail has built such strong soup programs, they’re repacking in some instances,” he says. “The Panera Bread brand is being aggressive with new items, and consumer packaged goods (CPG) is way up, which is good news.”

Blount Foods offers Panera At Home soup varieties in 10- to 32-ounce sizes. Its newest items capitalize on the trend toward ethnic flavors—Thai Style Chicken soup and Greek Style Lemon Chicken soup.

New Oxford, PA-based Winter Gardens Quality Food also has been focusing more on international flavors with its newer soup lines.

“New and interesting international flavors are a trend, as is the growing interest in better-for-you products through the introduction of ancient grains, vegetable purées and thickeners,” says John Cummins, R&D/culinary sales specialist at Winter Gardens Quality Foods. “There also has been more focus on soup’s potential as a year-round category, rather than just for fall and winter.”

He adds that although bulk soup sales are down due to the pandemic, packaged soups have fared better because of the convenience aspect of these products.

Lynn, MA-based Kettle Cuisine has seen double-digit growth in the soup segment, despite the pandemic.

“We are seeing an explosion in retail deli, as consumers search for alternatives from away-from-home dining,” says Sandy Rega, Kettle Cuisine’s vice president of marketing.

“As retailers have grown their private label presence and expanded their store brand across multiple center-of-the-store items, we have also seen rapid growth of retailer private label in the refrigerated soup category,” says Debra Lowey, the company’s vice president of sales. “Private label soups now account for well over half of all refrigerated soup sales.”

With the focus on healthy eating continuing, soup fits the criteria for a nutritious meal or side option.

“Coupled with the perceived safety associated with deli soup, consumers feel fresh soup is safe and healthy,” says Mike Seeger, Kettle Cuisine’s vice president of mass and club. “Hot soup wells have been impacted, but retailers are working to get this area opened back up for fall.”

Many of the trends prior to the pandemic remain.

“[Like in other parts of the store,] plant-based items are on the rise,” says Mary Shepard, director of sales, partner, Fortun Foods, Inc., Kirkland, WA. “We are finding more retailers requesting plant-based soups, and for that reason, we developed a line of vegan soups.”

Fortun Foods offers the Family Pack of fresh concentrates in 32-ounce pouches that can feed a family quickly and economically. Varieties include Roasted Tomato, Chicken Noodle, Corn Chowder and Azteca Chicken & Rice.

Shepard adds that retail soup sales are on the rise, as more consumers are eating from home.

Along with healthy ingredients, there has been a move to higher-quality soups.

“There’s also been a focus on products that are geared to vegetarians,” says Ashley Albert, co-owner, The Matzoh Project, Brooklyn, NY.

The Matzo Project’s vegan Matzo Ball Soup contains no artificial colors or flavors, and no MSG.

“I think comfort food has taken on a whole new meaning during this time,” says Albert. “People are redefining home for themselves every day and finding new ways to feel at ease in surroundings that are so familiar that they’ve almost become uncomfortable. Sitting down to a bowl of soup feels like an easy way to calm the internal storm.”

Strong Sellers

Flavor popularity in this category is highly regional, although best sellers like chicken noodle, tomato and broccoli cheddar drive the greatest volume across the country.

“While there are some regional preferences and recipes that are more popular by geography, the core top selling five to seven flavors are the same throughout the U.S.,” says Lowey.

Limited time offers and seasonal soups can make delis a destination, driving incremental sales.

“The overall staples are soups with clean labels as well as calorie-laden varieties like clam chowder and chicken with wild rice,” says Sewall at Blount Fine Foods. “But preferences are geographically diverse.”

Seeger says seafood soups are becoming more popular in recent months and in all states.

“We are experiencing a lot of growth with plant-based protein and vegetable-forward soups as well as Indian- and Asian-inspired flavors,” says Rega. “With both Millennials and Generation Z gaining buying power, providing a broad offering that caters to health and wellness trends and international cuisines is growing in importance. There is also some renovation being done on improving old favorites. Changing Chicken Noodle to Rotisserie Chicken Noodle or adding health claims to favorites, like organic, [for example].”

When LTOs are offered to supplement the regular soup roster, it’s recommended that new varieties are launched at least two to three times a year.

“Without continuous innovation, retailers lose the opportunity to gain incremental sales from a wider segment of their consumer base,” says Rega.

And all is not lost with soup bars, as some parts of the country experiment with a comeback. By thinking out of the box and implementing state-of-the-art technology, this is becoming a possibility for retailers moving forward.

“In recent weeks, some retailers have begun testing different options to ensure their customers feel safe when ladling soup into cups,” says Lowey. “Some are posting signage informing customers of the sanitation schedule, some are making paper napkins available to handle high touch contact points like the soup lid and ladle. A few retailers have invested in equipment that blows air into a plastic glove and allows the customer to slide their hand inside the glove before handling lids and ladles.”

In terms of innovative offerings, at Fortun Foods, new soup varieties are all vegan and include Tom Kha, Thai Coconut Lime, African Almond and Butternut & Sweet Potato.

“Our challenge at Fortun Foods, is we are not your commodity soup,” says Shepard. “We only use fresh vegetables, and have no artificial powders, preservatives, additives or MSG. We are chef-inspired, with layered cooking.”

Albert at The Matzoh Project says wholesome, sustainable and clean ingredients are a priority for soup consumers.

“Soup is a great entry point to discover a new culture—from Pho and ramen to pasta e fagioli, matzo ball soup, French onion and Greek avgolemono,” says Albert. “Soup makes global flavors really accessible.”

Winter Gardens’ staples include creamy tomato, clam chowder, beef and vegetable and chicken noodle.

“Asian-inspired flavors have been gaining popularity for several years now, as we’ve seen with Vietnamese pho and Japanese miso,” says Cummins. “Also increasing are African, Middle Eastern and Western European flavor influences with bold and earthy ingredients, like peanuts, tamarind, chilis, curries and lots of fresh herbs.”

Marketing and Merchandising

For effective marketing and merchandising in this abnormal climate, it’s important to not only think innovatively, but also look at what options are available.

“Retailers absolutely need innovation,” says Shepard at Fortun Foods. “Take out the plastic tubs, as this is a tired look, shows ingredient separation and takes up limited shelf space. Sustainability trends are in a pouch.”

She recommends cross merchandising a pouch of soup with a side of garlic bread or sandwiches like grilled cheese and tomato. Bundling meal solutions for families with soup also is effective.

“Another innovative idea is selling a pouch within a tub,” she says. “This is double tamper proof, recyclable, has a longer refrigerated shelf life, with less static shock and a greater emphasis on food safety. Also, we’re able to put coupons or cross merchandising info within the tub.”

Retailers are now merchandising chilled soup in former salad bars.

“It’s important that CPG product is visible, so placing it in the middle of the store works well,” says Sewall at Blount Fine Foods. “Some retailers are actually selling 4-pound bags of soup that go in a kettle for families.”

Blount has labeled its bulk soups with UPCs so they can be positioned and sold separately.

“One of the big surges has been our private label Panera brand soup in 32-ounce sizes for families,” says Sewall. “This is growing faster than our 16-ounce size.”

He adds that having a well-stocked soup section is important.

“If soups are being repacked for selling on cold salad bar stations, it can enhance visibility and make a nice presentation,” Sewall says. “The soup consumers are still there, but delis have to work harder to get business away from restaurants.”

Cross merchandising tends to be effective with soup. The entire Matzo Project line, which includes Harrissa Matzo Chips and Salted Matzo Bites, is designed to work together.

“With prepared soups, I’m a big fan of customizable options,” says Albert at The Matzo Project. “Let me start with a vegan matzo ball base and let me add noodles and chopped vegetables, shredded chicken, jalapeño slices…let me make it my own.”

The biggest challenges to selling soup in delis is keeping merchandising and displays as well as product assortment fresh and interesting.

“The most popular and effective method is traditional promotional combinations with soup and a sandwich or salad or soup as part of a larger family meal package,” says Cummins at Winter Gardens Quality Foods. “It’s important to be price competitive and consider alternative merchandising and product displays. Also, retailers should try promoting soups in the spring and summer months to extend their relevance.”

Becoming a soup destination takes commitment, both in space as well as merchandising.

“A full free-standing or defined section of a deli case with a varied selection of soups, creates a soup destination,” says Rega at Kettle Cuisine. “Adding signage to communicate the differentiators your soups deliver is key to success. Retailers should be sure to add key callouts such as Vegetarian, Vegan, Organic and Gluten Free where applicable. When offering both hot soup and deli cups, it is important to merchandise side by side, guiding customers to buy for both immediate consumption and to stock their refrigerators with their favorite soups.”

She adds that retailers with a strong following of soup consumers can drive additional volume in the category by extending their offerings to include mac and cheese or global stews. With a more varied offering, retailers can cater to varied day parts and snacking occasions.

“Provide shoppers a big, visually clean shopping experience,” says Seeger. “Offer the ‘tried & true’ varieties with a few ‘innovative’ items that allow them to stretch their pallets into new foods/tastes.”

Lowey recommends retailers offer multiple facings, no less than two, of every flavor, to create a billboard effect, which will grab the customer’s attention.“In addition to the core varieties, it is always a good idea to offer at least two healthy options, one of which should be vegetarian,” she says. DB