Soup has long been associated with comfort, so when the COVID-19 numbers started getting out of control last year and people were eating at home, fearful of what was happening, it’s no surprise that soup sales saw big increases at the supermarket—even though the way it was being sold needed to change.
“Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen consumers increasingly gravitate towards both comfort foods and more premium items such as seafood bisques and chowders,” says Kyle Callahan, associate director of sales for Kettle Cuisine, based in Lynn, MA.
Seeratt Dutt, innovation and development chef for Kettle Cuisine, notes retailers got creative during the pandemic and that has helped with sales.
“We saw everything from soup bars move to behind the counter, soup being sold in bulk bags, soup and meals pre-portioned into deli cups, products switched to retail containers for grab-and-go and some just closing them completely,” he says.
Bob Sewall, vice president of sales and marketing for Blount Fine Foods, Fall River, MA, notes the cup soup business is “through the roof!”
“Some retailers are saying hot-to-go is hotter than it’s ever been thanks to grab-to-go cups,” he says. “We do have a lot of customers who still offer a hot soup program, and consumers are demanding these cup options. Some are repacking soup and putting it out.”
In response, Blount Fine Foods is getting ready to open its fourth soup plant that will transition its products from the bowl soup options to the cups.
Mary Shepard, director of sales for Fortun Foods, a Kirkland, WA-based company that produces soups, believes that considering COVID numbers are still rising, the fall will be similar to what deli counters have experienced the past 18 months, and that comfort soups will continue to be in demand.
“As a fresh soup company for more than 40 years, we have kept to the true nature of what we are all about—not frozen, not engineered, but small-batch, chef-inspired soups,” she says. “We did think like a deli operator during these hard times of the pandemic, and to-go menu options were being developed.”
A Healthy Choice
A trend that Shepard at Fortun Foods has noticed, and the company has changed its strategy in the category because of it, is the rise in interest in plant-based soups.
“That has been growing exponentially, and is here to stay,” says Shepard. “Fortun Foods has developed a line of seven vegan soups, from comfort soup variety to taking the flavors internationally. More and more, consumers are looking towards plant based, even if their everyday diet does not follow that. The healthier alternative is going mainstream.”
Among the company’s new products are plant-based butternut squash and a plant-based Thai coconut soup.
“We have the best carbon footprint in the industry, as these soups have the longest refrigerated shelf life of six months, have no preservatives, no additives and no MSG,” says Shepard.
John Cummins, culinary director for Winter Gardens Quality Foods, Inc., New Oxford, PA, agrees that vegan and plant-based “better-for-you” soups are trending up, but also sees rising trends in ethnically-inspired global flavors and a renewed emphasis on hearty comfort food classics.
“During the pandemic, the bulk offerings stopped completely, given that all soup bars closed,” he says. “And some of our customers reduced their SKU assortment to focus on a more basic core offering.”
Variety is the Spice of Life
Cummins notes today’s staples are basic soups that have become familiar to the average consumer, such as chicken noodle, tomato bisque, beef chili with beans, broccoli cheddar and loaded potato.
While these comfort soups likely will always be the staples and sell well, today’s deli departments need to think more about variety—especially when trying to attract Millennial customers.
“There is still the consumer who wants real gourmet offerings, like Lentil & Sweet Sausage with spinach, Thai Coconut Lime, African with Sweet Potato & Kale,” says Shepard. “Variety is key to success.”
Mike Seeger, vice president of sales for Kettle Cuisine, has seen a push towards upgraded quality soups with ‘restaurant style’ callouts, allowing for a premium retail experience.
“Retailers have kept their focus on core flavors, driving volume and incremental sales,” he says. “We have also seen an increase in family-size offerings during the pandemic. While we are seeing people gravitate towards classic comfort foods, we’re also continuing to see a push towards label clean up, including nutritional call outs like gluten free, high protein, calorie count and zero added sugar.”
The End of Soup Bars?
While soup bars were mostly shut down in supermarkets during the pandemic, some stores are starting to bring them back slowly, though they do not offer as many options as they once did.
In fact, Cummins notes a majority of Winter Gardens Quality Foods’ customers have reopened their soup bars following the local-area mandates. Yet, many are still asking for refrigerated, pre-packed cups, so filling both needs is important.
This has resulted in the need for more grab-and-go soups at the deli counter, and many soup manufacturers have bought into this trend.
“We thought of alternatives because families needed meal ideas,” says Shepard. “A family pack of fresh concentrated soup (just add water) can be the most economical savings for the consumer. We eliminate the extra packaging from ‘plastic tubs’ and savings from freight cost, so a 32-ounce bag of concentrated fresh soup will yield 64 ounces once reconstituted with water to serve a half gallon of soup.”
While these hot soup bars were closed during the height of the pandemic, grab-and-go cup sales were as popular as ever. In fact, Kettle Cuisine experienced increases as much as 70%.
“Even now, with many hot bars back open, cup sales remain, signaling a shift in buying habits,” says Paul Nazario, sales director for the company. “Hot soup bars have begun to reopen and performed well. We have seen the strength of cup sales continue and total soup sales increase with the re-opening of hot soup bars.”
Freeli Foods, Oakland, CA, is touting its chicken noodle as unique in that it is more like a stew.
“It is reminiscent of the inside of a chicken pot pie,” says Matthew Sade, the company’s founder and CEO. “Freeli’s innovative packaging and convenience factor makes it a favorite among kids and adults. In just 45 seconds, one can have a healthy, warm nutritious meal that is delicious and easy to take on the go. It is a great alternative to the soup bars.”
New to Market
In response to the new trends, Winter Gardens Quality Foods has recently developed several new plant-based soups using a pea protein to create a hearty, meatless chili with beans and a spicy Indian-style vegetarian curry.
“We will continue to focus our efforts in this category,” says Cummins. “We know that this is what younger people are asking for, and with the pandemic, more people are thinking about healthier and sustainable options.”
Fortun Foods is introducing a chowder bar concept in 2021, which Shepard describes as “three seafood chowders to have available served hot behind the counter.” Customers can then repack in their own containers for added value.
Soup is extremely profitable if done right. Repeat business often comes from word of mouth, so companies and delis must team up to offer the best soups possible to make a successful concept and drive more consumers to the department.
“Soup should be marketed as a meal—bundle options with a bowl of soup,” says Shepard. “Add a salad or add a roll, add crackers or croutons. Delis are competing with the restaurant fare or the restaurant to-go meals. Kick it up a notch and offer that same restaurant experience. Promote it as such. But it has to be a quality people would come back for. Nothing changes the game by using subpar ingredients; it has to be a true ‘wow’ factor to grow the concept and the business.”
For delis offering soup again, some are going after it in a big way and increasing their marketing efforts.
“We’re seeing more digital couponing and social media posts letting their customers know they are in the soup business,” says Sewall. “Adding secondary displays in the store can also do wonders.”
That’s why many deli retailers have boosted their marketing efforts for the fall.
“Retailers have seen success by marketing the high quality, convenience and value of our soups using POS signage to drive repeat purchases and attract new customers,” says Callahan. “The pandemic has also placed increased importance on having an online presence, including images, videos and in-depth culinary descriptions.”
Cross merchandising is also important for sales. Combo items, such as offering soup and salad or soups with rolls, can do a lot.
Nazario notes the best way to keep the deli soup program fresh and drive new traffic is by offering limited-time offerings featuring seasonal ingredients and innovative, on-trend recipes.
“From a culinary standpoint, we think a fun way to make the soup bars even more attractive would be to offer a mini toppings bar with the soup,” he says. “Everything from shredded cheese for your broccoli cheddar to crispy tortilla strips for your chicken tortilla. These toppings can be cross utilized from the salad bar, as well.”
Perhaps the biggest thing that may help soup sales in the upcoming months is the return of soup samples being offered in the supermarket deli.
“Most of our customers have resumed in-store sampling, which does impact sales by getting customers to try new products,” says Cummins. “Standard promotions, combo deals/specials and go-to offerings also drive sales, and these are all things that need to be done.” DB