What If a Restaurant Gave Away All Its Money?
Nearly every night of the week, a chef somewhere is hosting a fundraising dinner, plating duck meatballs and seafood pasta for such nonprofit organizations as the anti-poverty Robin Hood Foundation or the garden-promotion Edible Schoolyard NYC. The first job of a chef is to feed, right?
Some go beyond that. At the new Rooster Soup Co. in Philadelphia, James Beard-winning chef Michael Solomonov gives 100 percent of the restaurant's profits to the nearby Broad Street Ministry, which offers support—including three-course meals—to thousands of people in need.
For the 38-year-old Solomonov, the idea for Rooster Soup started with a chicken. Hundreds of them, in fact.
At his beloved Federal Donuts mini-chain, which will next open in Miami, fried pastries might be the name, but it’s the superior fried chicken that’s garnered the fame. Around four years ago, he decided to switch from buying pieces of chicken to getting whole birds in order to improve the quality. He soon found himself with a 1,000-pound surplus of chicken trimmings.
What to do with 1,000 pounds of chicken trimmings? Make stock. “Chicken soup cures all ills, right?” joked Solomonov over the phone. “But I didn’t have room for 100 gallons of chicken stock at any of my five restaurants.”
He decided it was an opportune moment to open a restaurant with soup as a specialty.
At the same time, Solomonov’s business partner, Steven Cook, a former Blackstone Group investment banker-turned-chef, joined the board of Broad Street Ministry. Together, they decided to create their restaurant, Rooster Soup, and to give the profits to Broad Street.
“The hospitality business is a contradiction,” Cook said. “Hospitality is, by definition, something that you give without expectation of something in return, but it also gets us paid. To see it practiced in its pure form at Broad Street was a gut check for us.”
What made Broad Street distinctive to Cook, and then to Solomonov, is its unorthodox mission statement. The faith-based community offers legal counseling and medical and psychiatric services, and it serves as an almost-home address to which such necessities as prescriptions can be mailed. Volunteers come in and play music. Sometimes, it also hosts art therapy classes.
“Broad Street isn’t just a line of people outside, waiting to get soup or a crappy sandwich,” said Solomonov. “It’s a quite beautiful, old church and there are origami cranes all over the place."
According to Broad Street’s figures, 27 percent of the population in Philadelphia lives below the poverty line, ranking the city poorest among the country's 10-most-populous cities.
And yes, Broad Street delivers soup, too—often one of the remarkable offerings in the three-course meals it serves people in need. The Instagram feed, @broadstreetmin, is enough to inspire serious food envy: Start with sweet-potato cream soup with roasted butter pecans, followed by entrees that include fettuccine alfredo with squash and hefty, pan-seared chicken caprese on ciabatta. In 2015, the hospitality division served over 90,000 meals. (The cost of each is approximately $2.15, according to Cook’s estimates; Broad Street’s annual budget is $2.4 million.) Solomon doesn’t do the cooking, but he and his restaurant team volunteer quarterly.
For Solomonov, a former heroin addict, Broad Street offers a stark reality check. “Sure, handing out sandwiches at soup kitchens feeds people. But there’s an immeasurable benefit to giving someone a napkin after they eat. It’s not just the sustenance. It’s making them feel emotionally connected and supported that helps people. That’s what’s special about Broad Street. Hunger and homelessness have many different faces these days. It’s easy for me to see a time when I could have been here, and it means something to me that I can give back.”
Rooster Soup opened in January, after Solomonov and Cook initiated a Kickstarter campaign that raised almost $180,000 to get it off the ground. The retro-styled place looks like a ’50s luncheonette, with an L-shaped counter, a black-and-white tiled floor, and napkin dispensers at every table. The all-day menu runs the gamut from Greek salad with sheep’s milk feta and stuffed grape leaves to a Rooster burger topped with Jarlsberg cheese and mushrooms. There is even a creative BLT with bacon, latke, and tomato. Milkshake choices includes vanilla malted and creamsicle.
Each week, the restaurant delivers a check to Broad Street. It’s not a lot so far, averaging $500 a week. But besides offering a statement as to how razor-thin margins in the restaurant business actually are, it speaks to the commitment of this little restaurant to help improve the community around it.
Rooster Soup’s best seller? The monumental smoked matzo ball soup, which goes for $4 a cup and $7 for a bowl. All those discarded chicken parts have been put to good use.