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Special Feature: In the soup

Seafood soups, chowders strong in foodservice, but overrall retail category sales sluggish

By Lauren Kramer
September 07, 2010

Soups and chowders represent a low-priced meal category that has an edge over other product categories during the recession and is becoming increasingly popular in restaurants. According to MenuMine, a subscription-based menu information database from Chicago marketing consultancy Foodservice Research Institute (foodserviceresearchinstitute.com), the incidence of soup menuing is up 22.5 percent since 2005. And 21.7 percent of all foodservice operators menu a seafood soup or chowder. The time is ripe for restaurants to capitalize on the variety of ready-to-eat soups on the market.

For retail, it's not looking as positive. According to data from Nielsen Co., retail soup sales fell 6.7 percent for the 12 weeks that ended Jan. 23, and had dropped 3.3 percent for the 52-week period. A Los Angeles Times article that appeared on March 11 noted that soup sales for Campbell's, General Mills and ConAgra Foods were down. Campbell's launched a marketing campaign to highlight the affordability of condensed soups earlier this year.

"Soup can be a meal replacement, so it's easy for a restaurant or grocery store to offer soup and maybe a sandwich or salad as a meal that's heartier than, say, steak and chicken, which is more expensive," says Todd Blount, president of Blount Fine Foods in Fall River, Mass.

Business for the company's line of 200 fresh and frozen soups is growing faster in foodservice than in retail, says Blount. Last year the company added shrimp and black bean soup to its lineup. This year Blount is launching a cioppino soup with whole shellfish and tomatoes in a broth, as well as Shrimp Hot and Sour soup.

When customers began requesting gluten-free soups, Blount took a hard look at the ingredient lists and noticed that for some soups, very little ingredient substitution was required. Gluten is the composite of proteins that remains when starch 
is removed from cereal grains including wheat, barley and rye.

"We looked at our current lineup of soups and noticed that a handful were already gluten free, we just had to educate our customers about that," he says. "A few were really easy to make gluten-free because there was just one small ingredient that needed to be changed. In the new soups we're developing, we're trying to develop gluten-free versions where it makes sense to do so."

That's much harder to do when it comes to lowering sodium content, Blount says. "So much of soup flavor comes from sodium. In general, we're lowering salt on any item where we can without affecting the flavor, but usually those are very small quantities, like going from 800 milligrams of sodium to 700 milligrams."

At Sea Watch International, a clam chili and two Mediterranean clam soups will be launched in October, says Guy Simmons, VP of marketing and product development. "For years, we've been telling our customers who use clams to make clam chowder," he says.

Clams are close to being fat-free, low in cholesterol and high in iron, which makes them a good fit in the Mediterranean lifestyle diet. We played around with some soup recipes and found [clams] worked out well in a soup, so now we're expanding our line to practice what we've been preaching."

Sea Watch International is the nation's largest supplier of clam meat to the restaurant trade. The majority of the company's business is geared toward foodservice, and the remainder is to industrial soup manufacturers.

New England Clam Chowder is one of the soups in Phillips Foods' repertoire, though cream of crab, lobster bisque and Maryland vegetable crab soups are the most popular of its line of 15 soups and chowders, according to Honey Konicoff, Phillips' VP of marketing. Fifty-eight percent of the company's soup sales are retail while the remainder are foodservice-oriented.

"We offer a higher-end product in the soup category, because we use more expensive proteins," she says. Phillips Foods' soups are made in the company's Baltimore facility and shipped frozen.

A new player in the category is Greene, Maine-based Hurricane's, a company that produced its first soup in May 2009 in the heart of the recession. To date it has 14 varieties of soup, half of them incorporating seafood, including haddock chowder, Maine shrimp and corn chowder, and Maine crab and sweet potato bisque. The soups are made in small batches and are sold primarily throughout New England.

The majority of Hurricane's business is foodservice, but in June the company launched its first retail package - three varieties of soup sold in a 24-ounce pouch - at Hannaford supermarkets in Maine.

"We use as many local, all-natural ingredients as we can find," says Philip Wilbur, co-owner. "We're not the lowest price, that's for sure, but we put emphasis on the fact that our ingredients are local and all natural, with no artificial preservatives or MSG."


Contributing Editor Lauren Kramer lives in British Columbia


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