Keep your eye on the just-reopened “Original SoupMan” in New York City. Its performance will show just how long and how far a celebrity chef’s brand can extend when that chef—Al Yeganeh, the “Soup Nazi” of Seinfeld fame—is no longer on site. Back in the day, his “No soup for you” shtick was as important as his soup’s quality. Is it enough to drive franchise sales today?
Yeganeh’s storefront Soup Kitchen International had lines running down the block at its midtown Manhattan location well before a parody of his unique service style became a sensation on the NBC sitcom. That episode ran in 1995, and Yeganeh closed his restaurant in 2004. He sold the rights to it in 2005 to a company now known as Original SoupMan, retaining personal control of the brand and the soup recipes.
The company’s idea back then was that thanks to the television exposure, everyone knew who the Soup Man was and was aware that his soups were insanely delicious (see our coverage at No Franchise for You!). Plans called for coast-to-coast franchising of the soup stand concept—hundreds were announced as sold—plus a full line of packaged SoupMan soups that would be available in retail groceries.
Some of that came true. Today there are 22 Original Soup Man restaurants locations around the U.S. Most are in the New York/New Jersey area, but others can be found everywhere from the Mohegan Sun Casino Food Court in Connecticut to North Park Mall in Dallas. The retail line is still around, too, in some states but not all. The Albertson’s chain is perhaps the biggest grocer to stock it now. Former Yankee slugger Reggie Jackson still holds down the No. 3 slot in the corporate hierarchy as listed on the company’s website. His title: “Special Advisor, Strategic Relationships.”
Last week, the company reopened The Original SoupMan at its old 100 sq. ft.-site, hoping to reinvigorate the brand. Yeganeh, who lives nearby and whose face is part of the chain’s marketing and appears on its label, didn’t even come to the grand opening. Popular acclaim still rates the soups as delicious, good enough to support aggressive pricing on the 12-soup menu. The large lobster bisque goes for $20.
But the “No soup for you” vibe is no longer in place. Nor are the “rules” customers had to follow or be turned away, as some Seinfeld characters were on the show.
“We have the rules, bur they’re not enforced,” Original SoupMan president Bob Bertrand told Reuters. He says they made sense in the restaurant’s heyday.
“As much as they depicted him in Seinfeld, he’s a business man. He knew people were waiting for an hour, he didn’t have time to chit-chat. Move the line, get more people in, sell more soup,” Bertrand explains.
So far, business has been good. It’s not clear how much of the restaurant’s original clientele is still around, but it turns out there are plenty of Seinfeld watchers in or visiting New York City who want to taste the soup to see what all the fuss is about.
We don’t know if buying an International SoupMan franchise would make sense in your market or not. But be aware that the idea of serving great soup out of a small space still appears to be a viable concept, even in the dead of summer on the sidewalks of New York.