“No soup for you!”
It’s a phrase that became an instant classic the moment viewers first heard it on a Seinfeld episode 22 years ago. It was uttered by actor Larry Thomas, playing a character known the world over as “the Soup Nazi.”
It’s also a phrase that Al Yeganeh, the real-life chef on whom the character was based, really, really wishes everyone would just stop using. He would also prefer if people stopped calling him the world’s meanest man, particularly since all he ever wanted to do was make delicious soup.
“For years, Al ran a soup storefront in New York on 55th and 8th in New York City,” Joe Hagan, president of The Original Soupman company, explained. “And he had a really dedicated, demanding routine of getting up early and getting the best produce in the world — and then [going] to the store at 5:00 or 6:00 AM and making several big vats of soup fresh on a daily basis.”
His soup was exceptional, and not just because it made it into one of modern television’s most quotable episodes. Long before the world knew of Al Yeganeh’s soups, a Seinfeld intern was one of the thousands of New Yorkers who stood in line around the block every day “waiting 45 minutes in the rain, sometimes” for soup. New Yorkers are not internationally renowned for being patient people, Hagan noted, but good soup was apparently worth the wait.
But you had to order it correctly.
Said Hagan of Yeganeh’s process: “He is serious not only in the preparation of his soup, but also getting it into customers’ hands. He knew that he was going to sell out of his soup by the end of day. He felt if you came up to the line to buy the soup and he is providing the service you are paying for — [when] there are people in the back of the line — he didn’t have time for chitchat. Buy your soup, hand your money over, here’s you soup — let’s go. He wanted the line to move. That’s why he was kind of demanding.”
The Seinfeld intern, of course, didn’t order correctly and got booted from the line. He detailed his tale of woe to the writers — who, according to Hagan, were at that moment having trouble coming up with “nothing” to write about — and, thus, a TV highlight was born.
And, as it turns out, an international soup brand.
Admittedly, it’s a brand that has had something of a bumpy journey through the market — a ride that Hagan has been along for as an employee, consultant, investor and now president, as he heads up the new management team working hard to make sure that, yes, there is soup for you.
“We took over the company, buying it from the former management out of a bankruptcy situation. So, I’ve looked at it from every angle; I’ve looked at what they did pretty well and what they didn’t do at all. [They] could be selling so much stuff online; I don’t know why [they weren’t] doing it,” he said.
The reality, he said, is that because of the tremendous pop culture appeal of the “No soup for you!” phrase, people who’ve never even seen an episode of Seinfeld still somehow know the phrase. Hagan said that when management reopened the original storefront in New York City, people lined up around the block on a 95 degree day in July for hot soup. (Opening a soup chain in mid-July might have been one of the mistakes the original management team made.)
“The reality [was], you had so many people in different languages saying, ‘No soup for you!’ It was unbelievable.”
The challenge for The Original Soupman, Hagan explained, was channeling the enthusiasm that exists all over the world into something that could be converted into a profitable brand that lives up to why it was popular in the first place.
“It’s an authentic brand with a great flavor profile,” Hagan insisted.
But food marketing is difficult, as retailers often pay a grocery store hundreds of thousands of dollars for space, only to have products not sell adequately and get booted six months later. But there are a lot variables, and even when a retailer secures shelf space — which influences whether a customer will pick up and try a product — it’s a high-cost, low-reward gamble.
And it was a gamble that The Original Soupman was contractually bound to work through. Hagan doesn’t believe traditional grocery distribution is a bad channel; but he thinks it’s insufficient and not well-suited to what his brand’s strengths are.
Digital channels, on the other hand, open better opportunity from a margin perspective and from the perspective of tailoring the brand and its pitch to consumers. Online retail allows them to pitch more directly to college students, who Hagan noted with his own children, have a special affinity for well-made soup.
It also allows for membership opportunities and to tap into the reserve of goodwill the brand has invested in building over time.
“We want to be able to get into Al’s vault and offer up the soups that people have never seen. So, for members, you’ll have access to recipes that are in limited release of chicken tortilla soup.”
And, of course, there is always the merchandising tie-in — because what soup experience is complete without a t-shirt that says, “No soup for you!”?
Even though the t-shirt says it, the brand doesn’t mean it. In their ideal world, they want soup for everyone.
Preferably their soup.