Gearing Up for Soup Season

Photo Courtesy Kettle Cuisine

By offering a rotating selection of both hot to-go and prepackaged soups, delis can capitalize on this profitable segment.

With colder weather, hot comfort food sales tend to spike, and there is no better time to reevaluate a department’s soup selection.

According to Heather Prach, vice president of education at the Madison, WI-based International Dairy Deli Bakery Association (IDDBA), beef-based soup is down significantly in both dollar and unit sales. Chicken-based soups, however, are thriving.

“Chicken is the strongest protein over pork or red meat,” Prach notes.

The IDDBA reports that while chicken soup unit sales are up 2%, cheese soup unit sales have been flat, with a .7% decrease. The biggest growth is in vegetable soups, which showed 6% growth in unit sales.

“There is a comfort level with cheese and creamy soups, which are on trend with overall deli and bakery trends,” Prach explains. “When people eat out, they want indulgence. These varieties provide that.”

While Asian fare is trending overall in deli, this is not translating to the soup wells.

“It would seem Asian soups, like ramen and pho, would be hot due to the popularity of these types of grab-and-go meals, but we’re not seeing this with soup,” says Prach. “Still, there may be opportunity in adding these varieties to the department’s soup offerings.”

In the deli, IDDBA reports there is a .6% increase in soup unit sales year over year. Yet, some soup suppliers are seeing a boom.

“For the last six years, we’ve seen our soup sales increase 200%, and in the next four years we anticipate it will increase 55% and be a billion-dollar category,” says Bob Sewall, chief customer officer/executive vice president for Blount Fine Foods, based in Fall River, MA. “Most private label soup sales where we category manage are up in sales.”


Part of the soup category’s growth is due to flavors, varieties and ingredients that are on trend.

At the IDDBA Show last June, Blount Fine Foods introduced the Blount Family Kitchen line that includes Clam Shack soups in direct-fill 24-ounce cups.

“There is room in the soup section for another premier line, and we’re filling that void with an upscale product,” says Sewall. “In tough economic times, soup is affordable and nutritious.”

Lynn, MA-based Kettle Cuisine’s bulk and retail-packed fresh soups offer retailers multiple selling opportunities.

“Shoppers can pick up chilled soups in single- and family-serve sizes to stock their refrigerators for meals throughout the week,” says Kyle Callahan, the company’s director of retail sales. “They also have the option to buy hot soup to enjoy on-the-go through retailers’ self-serve wells or at the prepared foods counter.”

Kettle Cuisine and other soup suppliers take current trends into consideration with new product rollouts.

“Some of our recent launches with top mass and club accounts include a fantastic Tuscan Potato & Herb soup, which provides vegetarian consumers with a delicious option, and a flavor-packed Black Bean and Corn with Spicy Chorizo,” says Mike Seeger, Kettle Cuisine’s vice president of sales.

Fortun Foods, based in Kirkland, WA, founded Stockpot Soups, then sold it to Campbell’s in 1998 and recently acquired its brand name back. After the acquisition, the company launched six fresh retail soups that were rolled out this past September. These include New England Clam Chowder; Chicken Vegetable Noodle; Lobster Bisque; Chili with Meat; Broccoli & Cheddar; and Vegetarian Tomato Basil.

“Stockpot Soups prepare fresh batches per order; we do not freeze our retail soups,” says Mary Shepard, director of sales/partner, Fortun Foods. “We don’t use frozen or precooked meats or poultry in our soups.”

Photo Courtesy The Matzo Project

The Matzo Project, headquartered in Brooklyn, NY, offers packaged soup that takes 30 minutes to prepare.

“We wanted the flavor and color to be all natural, and we include bits of carrots, dill and other herbs chopped up,” says co-founder Kevin Rodriguez. “To do that naturally and have real ingredients was a challenge, and we tasted every broth and bouillon we could find. This is a vegan broth with no chicken.”


As the trends continue to evolve, soup flavors rotate in and out of favor.

“We’re seeing comfort food flavors and sustainable ingredients are trending,” says Sewall at Blount Fine Foods. “Our Panera Street Corn Soup has been a big seller recently. It’s vegetarian but there’s so many ingredients in it that it’s more like a stew than a soup. It’s low-fat, as well. Street corn is a big trend right now.”

The Blount Family Kitchen line offers a number of other indulgent flavors, including creamy chicken and wild rice, lasagna soup and baked potato soup with bacon and cheese.

Seeger at Kettle Cuisine predicts the company will move into a soup kit-type format soon.

“This would be an exciting way to bring more restaurant-style soups to the retail space,” he says.

The healthy eating trend is also helping to drive fresh soup growth.

Photo Courtesy Kettle Cuisine

“Fresh soups provide consumers with a wholesome option that people can take on the go and quickly heat within minutes,” says Callahan at Kettle Cuisine.

There is a rule of thumb when it comes to soup popularity at Fortun Foods.

“The bestsellers will always be the 80/20 rule,” says Shepard at Fortun Foods. “For Stockpot Soups, we made sure our first six retail soup introductions will cover the biggest sales.”

Shepard adds that the educated shopper understands that healthy eating must start with real ingredients. 

“Stockpot Soups doesn’t use precooked anything,” she says. “Our experience goes back 45 years, chef-inspired layered cooking to extract the flavors. If a recipe asks for butter, we use butter — we will not substitute for a fake alternative. Cream, we use real cream — not powders. Cutting corners would be to use alternative ingredients to taste like the original.  That is not healthy, that is not the Stockpot Soups way. It really does make a difference to provide the highest quality ingredients.”

When it comes to soup packaging innovations, the focus is on environmentally friendly options.

“We’re still seeing sustainability and a focus on controlling spoilage and waste,” says IDDBA’s Prach. “But we’ve seen soups in all different packages — flex pack, jars, plastic containers. Soup manufacturers are starting to get creative mainly for sustainability aspects. Customers also are seeking convenience.”


While visibility is important, providing different soup purchasing options is key to success in the category.

“Retailers finding the most success have created an ‘on-the-go’ lunch section within their prepared foods department, offering soup along with sandwiches and sides,” says Seeger.

Especially with today’s inflation and higher food prices, soup is an economical meal solution.

“People understand with a 32-ounce container of soup and salad, you have a great family meal,” says Sewall at Blount. “With both private label and branded items, deli departments can bring someone new to the soup category every week. Adding a line of soup creates a marketing opportunity.”

Cross-merchandising also can create a soup destination.

“We also have our pot pies and flatbread pizzas, which provide the availability to put meal deals together,” says Sewall. “When delis cross-merchandise all the vertical set, the department can offer bundling specials. Offering products in the same set so customers can easily find them expands soup’s potential.”

Although soup can be merchandised either in the deli or dairy sections, Prach recommends the deli department.

“It is much better served in the deli, where people can grab the soup to serve with other meals,” she says. “We encourage grocers to expand and have CPG (consumer packaged goods) soup merchandised in the deli.”

Both hot and cold soups are typically staples in the deli department.

“As a shopper myself, I like to see more bundle opportunities that include a half sandwich or salad with a cup of soup,” says Shepard at Fortun Foods. “Delis need to think more like a restaurant.”

“Delis need to think more like a restaurant.”

– Mary Shepard, Fortun Foods, Kirkland, WA

She adds that another option is creating a seafood soup section near the seafood department to further expand this category.

“The two departments that carry soups should be the deli department and the seafood department,” says Shepard. “Stockpot Soups has developed a unique program — the chowder bar.”

This turnkey concept includes a kettle program that accommodates up to three flavors, such as Lobster Bisque, New England Clam Chowder or Alaskan Seafood Chowder.

“Supermarkets can drive the customers to that department for more meal solutions and offer samples as guests walk by,” Shepard explains.

With the Farmer’s Almanac predicting an unusually cold and snowy winter, growth opportunities for the soup category appear to be strong in the months ahead.

“Soup is nutritious, filling and relatively inexpensive,” says IDDBA’s Prach. “It’s an easy way to change things up in the department. By offering a soup of the day, stores can create a destination.”


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