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Spotlight: Soups/chowders

Producers tout convenience, healthful aspects of ready-to-eat soups

Sophisticated soups, such as Phillips' new Shrimp
    Bisque, is one category trend. - Photo courtesy of Phillips Foods
By Lauren Kramer
July 01, 2009

Seafood soups and chowders are as popular as ever today, but retailers and restaurants are increasingly insisting on ready-to-serve products from their suppliers.

"In most cases, [buyers] don't even want to have to add milk," says Guy Simmons, VP of marketing and product development at Sea Watch in Easton, Md.

"Ready-to-serve soups cost more than condensed varieties, but convenience and ease of preparation have become very valuable to operators, so they're willing to pay more," Simmons says. Many of Sea Watch's customers use a partially prepared product and add their own signature to it using herbs and spices.

A harvester and processor of clams, Sea Watch supplies clam chowder, crab soups, shrimp bisque and lobster bisque for foodservice and retail markets. Soups and chowders, of which clam chowder is by far the most popular, constitute 25 percent of the company's business.

"Clam chowder is always high on the priority list of restaurants," says Simmons. "It's one of those soups people are more likely to eat in a restaurant than they are at home."

Four years ago, the company eliminated trans fats from its products by removing partially hydrogenated soybean oil from the ingredient mix. "That wasn't as big a deal in soups and chowders as it was in some of the frozen breaded items," says Simmons. But it speaks to the focus on health and wellness, which is touching every aspect of the food industry.

As consumers look for fully prepared foods at retail, soups have served as a good alternative and a popular option in the deli. "Soups are easy to prepare and are wholesome because of their mix of ingredients," says Todd Blount, president of Blount Fine Foods in Fall River, Mass. "It's a well-rounded meal someone can grab on the go, and it has a sense of freshness."

The company carries a full line of some 200 fresh and frozen soups, and operates a 
clam processing plant in Rhode Island. Traditionally its business has been split 50-50 between retail and foodservice, but lately Blount's listings in grocery stores have been growing as deli sections expand. As a result, the company's retail sales are expanding faster than foodservice.

"The edges of the store are becoming bigger than the middle of the store, and we're riding that wave," he says. "Whole meal replacement has been complicated for manufacturers, but soup fits that bill very nicely."

One trend Blount has encountered is coming up with non-cream-based and low-sodium seafood soups.

"Because of the focus on health, we're trying to come up with alternatives," he says, citing the company's tomato-based clam chowder as one example. "With some products it doesn't make sense to reduce sodium because it will change that particular soup, but we're trying to present alternatives to retailers and create variety in the seafood soup world."

Another alternative Blount has presented is shrimp and black bean soup. "These things are sometimes hard to sell," he admits. "You have to do a lot of sampling. But once people try it, they love it."

Not all seafood soups sell equally well. Blount says his experience with salmon soups, for example, has never been overwhelmingly successful. The Alaskan king crab soup, sold under the Legal Seafood brand, by contrast, is very popular. "People are becoming more comfortable with crab in soup, as well as scallops and shrimps," he says. "Slowly, we're getting people used to having new seafood proteins in their soup."

Dennis Gavagan, corporate executive chef at Phillips Foods, has noticed a more varied line of products. "You're seeing broth soups, cream soups, ethnic-oriented soups and noodle bowls, as well as more sophisticated, innovative products in the private-label brands," he says.

Phillips Foods sees a 30 percent decrease in soup sales in summer versus winter, but its top sellers have stood the test of time: cream of crab, New England clam chowder and lobster bisque. Last year the company introduced a few new soups, including chipotle crab and shrimp soup, and creamy shrimp and fire-roasted tomato bisque.

"Both soups take advantage of the great interest by consumers in ethnic flavors - in this case, the flair of the Southwest," says Honey Konicoff, Phillips' VP of marketing. "Soups are a high-profit item and a great opportunity from a value-added point of view, than some of your straight protein sales. While they're not a dominant player in our product mix, they are always a focus for us."


Contributing Editor Lauren Kramer lives in British Columbia


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