On a cold winter’s day there are few things more comforting than a hearty bowl of soup. And for a light summer lunch, a flavourful consommé or a healthy bisque can be the ideal alternative to a plain sandwich or meagre salad - not to mention as a snack at any time of the day, or to pad out smaller lunch bites with a heartier option.

With this amount of diversity, it’s no wonder that soup is becoming a popular option for bakery retailers to increase profits and consumer choice. And as the need for fast lunchtime choices becomes increasingly pressing, those selling pastries and sandwiches are realising that a hot option on the menu can give their meal offerings added appeal.

Neville Morse, MD of Janes Pantry, with 10 bakery shops around Gloucester and nine delivery vans, recently took on a chef who has devised six new soups. Best -selling winter soup, he says, is home-made vegetable. Others in the range include Tomato and Basil, Tomato and Red Pepper, Potato and Leek and Parsnip and Ginger. The only one that is not selling in such high volume at the moment is Parsnip and Ginger, which Neville thinks may be better-suited to the London market .

Consumer research also suggests that a liquid lunch in the form of soup is a growing market. TNS Worldpanel Foodservice’s report on out-of-home meal consumption found that fast casual dining is on the rise and almost a quarter of all lunchtime meal occasions are out of home, leaving the market wide open for options that bridge the gap between take-out choices and filling meals.

"We’ve moved over to offer a lot more ’meal’ or ’main course’ style soups in response to demand," says Simon Hargraves, director of food and communications for Pret A Manger. "We started out offering quite basic soups and classic recipes, but we’ve found the most popular are those which mimic a meal, so we’ve really gone down that route. We offer a mushroom risotto soup, for example, which comes with rice and is a very hearty choice. Our Thai chicken soup is extremely popular and has become quite a classic now. We offer a chilli soup, which is more like a liquid chilli con carne, and a spaghetti bolognaise soup which is also very thick and filling - like a full meal."

Seasonal variation

Bakery retailers would be right in thinking these hearty options might be better suited to winter. Sandwich chain Pret varies its soups three times a year to suit the seasons. But even Pret’s summer options have gone down the route of thick and appetising. "We have a red pepper soup, which, while being very colourful and low in calories, is also very thick," says Simon. "We serve that both in January when people need a bit of extra colour in their food and in summer when they want light options."

As Pret is showing, it’s not just any old freeze-dried powder that will generate turnover. While soup sales are growing, so too is customer discernment, and most are no longer willing to opt for a soup from a sachet. "Fresh soup continues to outperform the other sectors as consumers increasingly trade up to higher-quality, fresh products," says a spokesperson from Mintel, whose 2008 report on soup reveals a distinct move away from the powdered soups of old.

"Dried soup is in long-term decline and has a less healthy and appealing image than either ambient or fresh soup," she continues. "There is also a gradual trend towards soups free from artificial flavours, colours, preservatives or MSG. A focus on healthy eating and heartier ’meal’ soups has continued to push value forwards and healthier, more natural and wholesome-sounding recipes are the key drivers."

Gourmet appeal

With wholesome and healthy the key message, varying your soup range throughout the year helps persuade your customers that you’re taking the freshness aspect seriously, and adds an extra gourmet appeal to your kitchens. Soups respond to seasonal change better than any other food product you’re likely to sell, and customers will be looking for thick and hearty in winter, and light, flavoursome creations in the summertime. "Soups are great for throwing seasonal ingredients into," says cookery writer Sophie Conrad, whose latest book is Soups & Stews. And while the idea of having to constantly vary your menu might seem like extra work, Conrad suggests it’s actually a great way to cut costs and improve your offering at the same time. "Cooking with seasonal ingredients is much cheaper - particularly if you’re producing on a commercial scale," says Conrad. "You’ll also find that soups can naturally take a lot of vegetables, which means you can use less meat or cheaper cuts and still have plenty of flavour in there."

As a bakery retailer who wants soup on your menu, you don’t necessarily need to make it fresh on the premises. There are now several companies which supply high-quality soup in pouch form. Heinz, for example, has launched a five-strong range of soups for the foodservice sector, including Chunky Farmhouse Vegetable, Rustic Minestrone, Hearty Mushroom, Tangy Tomato & Basil and Sweet Carrot & Coriander, all based on leading retail varieties. The ambient soups are available in boxes of six one-litre standing pouches and are free from MSG, artificial colours and preservatives, and comply with FSA salt guidelines. Bakery retailers will be offered point-of-sale material, including branded soup bowls, a soup kettle and chalk boards.

In general, it pays to shop around, however, as different soups can vary across a range, so you might find a supplier with an excellent leek and potato soup, but another that does the best minestrone.

From a logistical perspective, these soups often keep much longer than fresh with a shelf-life of around 22 days, and while a five-litre bucket is standard, many wholesalers sell smaller two-litre versions, which are ideal to get started with. In terms of pricing, fresh soup wholesaler Rod & Bens recommends a single 350g portion of its soup should retail from between £2.37 and £2.95, and sells its two-litre buckets from £5.05 to £7 depending on the soup. So even buying in very small six-portion quantities of soup would mean a profit of around £10. Scale that up to 50 portions and the returns are much higher.

So while you may be thinking of adding one or two soups to enhance your profits and drive a few extra customers through your doors in winter, it could be the start of something much bigger.


=== Souped-up equipment ===

Whichever type of soup you opt for, you’ll need the right equipment to keep it warm. Soup kettles start at around £600 for a 10-litre model and can be either ’wet’ or ’dry’ versions. ’Wet’ involves a bain-marie base, while ’dry’ is an exposed element, and both have their advantages. The former must be constantly topped up with water - not ideal during the lunchtime rush - but the latter dries out the soup towards the bottom, and can even burn if left unattended.

If you’re making soup from fresh, alternative servers, such as Hatco’s Heat-Max Heated Wells offer a handy way to both cook soup and keep it warm for serving. This is a more expensive option than the traditional kettle, but in terms of saving space in a small preparation area, it might be a better investment, as there is no need for a separate pan, and washing-up is also minimised.

Likewise, choosing a blender specifically designed for soup is important. Non-industrial blenders won’t be able to take large enough quantities of hot liquid, and it’s important to get the right blades. "Our blenders have blades that actually throw the vegetables up into the soup as it’s blending, so you get a better consistency," says Alex Shannon, sales manager of catering equipment supplier Apuro. "With other blenders you can end up with some completely pulverised around the bottom of the blade and some not blended at all."

If you’re retailing other food items on your premises, opting for the do-it-yourself version can also be the ideal way to showcase your products.