Soup is not a particularly elegant food. It scalds the tongues of the impatient, dribbles down the chins of the shaky, and hints subtly at what life was like—and might very well be once again—without our teeth.
But those drawbacks somehow haven’t dented soup’s reputation as a hearty, affordable comfort food with increasing popularity at fast-food restaurants. Servings of soup at U.S. restaurants grew by 3 percent to 1.6 billion units in the year ending in July, according to research firm NPD, and quick-service restaurants led the way by ladling out 8 percent more than a year ago.
Zoup!, a Michigan-based chain, has been riding the surge in demand for soup, nearly doubling from 28 franchised and company-owned locations and sales of $12.6 million in 2010 to 47 locations and $25.3 million in sales last year. Zoup now counts 57 stores and projects its 2013 sales to grow 26.6 percent, to $32 million.
“In 1998, when I started, the challenge was the perception that it was a side dish,” said Zoup founder and Chief Executive Officer Eric Ersher. Gradually, he said, “folks began to view soup as a meal. The most popular is the meal-size portion.”
Speed and affordability have also helped the category. Data from Technomic show that soup has become increasingly common on fast-food menus—with nearly 50 percent growth over the last five years—and less common at casual and fine-dining establishments. “Another factor driving soup’s growth is that it’s popular with those 50 and older, and this age group is visiting restaurants more than any other age group,” said Bonnie Riggs, NPD restaurant industry analyst, in an e-mail. Such varieties as tortilla soup, bisque, and tomato soup are showing up more often, according to food industry researcher Datassential.
The rising tide of broth is not lifting all soup spoons: Canned soup sales at grocers have declined as consumers opt for foods they perceive to be fresher. Fast-food soup, it seems, is fresh enough.