Soups satisfy

Refrigerated and hot prepared soups are becoming increasingly popular as retailers and manufacturers collaborate to build awareness.

There is an episode of Seinfeld that centers around a burning question—is soup a meal? If supermarket sales of fresh hearty soups, stews and chilis are any indication, the answer is a resounding yes.

Industry observers say consumers and retailers are embracing the value proposition of fresh soup offerings. They further suggest that the primary reasons for growth in this category is that fresh soup represents value for the money, while offering a convenient meal solution.

“The entire fresh refrigerated soup category—soups, stews and chilis—has experienced strong growth,” says Mary Vaccaro, senior marketing manager for Medina, Ohio-based Sandridge Food Corp. “We have enjoyed double-digit growth in both the bulk and retail fresh soup arenas across the board.”

Vaccaro notes that fresh soup is a popular choice for lunch, a snack and as a main dish for dinner. “Consumers recognize that soup represents a filling but low-calorie lunch and they have become increasingly aware of its function as a convenient and nutritious meal across many eating occasions,” she says.

A growing segment within the category are hearty soups, add observers. “We are pleased with the market’s performance so far this season,” says Bob Sewall, executive vice president of sales and marketing for Fall River, Mass.-based Blount Fine Foods. “Fresh soups are performing very well, especially the core products—chowders, hearty soups and chilis. We are also seeing some of the newer healthy varieties really catch on, including Lemon Chicken Orzo and Quinoa Chili. We got off to a good start at the beginning of the season, and that trend is holding, especially with our more forward-thinking customers.”
Blount Fine Foods’ culinary team has also developed refrigerated soup with toppers, including loaded baked potato with cheese and bacon toppings, and low-fat chicken tortilla with tri-color tortilla strips and cheese. “We continue to offer our customers a wide range of premium food products to help retailers maximize sales and profits,” says Sewall.

Fresh soups have been so successful; observers say they are now challenging their shelf-stable counterpart for consumer favor. “I genuinely believe that the category of refrigerated soup is poised for explosive growth,” says Levon Kurkjian, vice president of marketing for Kettle Cuisine, the Chelsea, Mass.-based maker of refrigerated and frozen soups. “Shelf-stable soups, particularly cans, have been on the decline for many years because consumers are demanding better tasting products, cleaner ingredients and better nutrition—all of which refrigerated soups are able to deliver.”

In addition to cleaner ingredients, consumers are looking for healthier options; that means cutting back on sodium. Sandridge Food Corp. is meeting that need with a line of reduced-sodium fresh and fully prepared soups. Vaccaro says that the development of these better-for-you soups supports U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) guidelines released in February 2011 that recommend sodium intake be reduced to 2,300 milligrams or less per day. Sandridge’s reduced-sodium fresh soups all contain less than 750 mg of sodium per serving, and several have additional favorable attributes such as preservative- and gluten-free and high in fiber.

Less sodium does not mean less flavor, says Vaccaro. “We wanted to address not only the USDA guidelines on sodium reduction, but also consumers’ concerns for robust flavors without all the salt. Our chefs matched some of our signature soup taste profiles and developed intense flavor systems that are not salt dependent.”

As many consumers have begun taking management of their health into their own hands with a proactive diet, they are seeking well-balanced nutrition as well.  “As such, it has become even more important for meals to not only minimize ‘bad nutrition’ like sodium and saturated fat but to also maximize ‘good nutrition’ like fiber, protein and vitamins and minerals,” says Kettle Cuisine’s Kurkjian.

Observers say consumers and retailers are also looking for soups that tap into flavor and cultural trends, in addition to appealing to their health concerns. Indian, North African and Caribbean cuisines are gaining in popularity.

“The trick here though is that the majority of consumers want ‘Americanized’ versions of these meals as opposed to the truly authentic recipes,” Kurkjian says.

Hot and cold

Merchandising hot and refrigerated soups together will draw in customers, observers say. “Retailers should emphasize the fresh soups’ key selling points of aroma, taste and freshness,” Vaccaro says. “They can accomplish this by having stations that feature both hot soups and refrigerated grab-and-go selections. Aroma and taste are key components to the theatre of food and retailers need to play on this.”

Hot soup displays, in which selections are rotated daily and schedules are posted in advance, can make for strong shopper destinations. “Shoppers might make a point to stop by on a certain day if they know in advance that their favorite flavor will be available,” she adds.

Refrigerated soups should be merchandised as close to the hot soup offerings as possible to demonstrate category focus and expertise, Kurkjian adds. “This allows retailers to gain shopper trial with hot soups and loyalty with the chilled soups.”

Sampling is also an important tactic in this space as shoppers that are able to experience the quality difference are much more likely to participate in the category, say observers. It is also important that employees know a little about the flavor profile of the soups, “so that they can easily point out their attributes,” Blount Foods’ Sewall says. “The ideal explanation [to a consumer] is that a well-made fresh/refrigerated soup allows for a restaurant-quality experience at home. This is especially true with the Panera and Legal Sea Foods brands.”

However retailers should not focus on just one promotion strategy, say observers. They can include fresh soups in their ‘meal ideas’ materials, which can be online, in circulars, and in-store. Hot-to-go soups complement the refrigerated soups choices while cross promoting soups with sandwiches or salads offer the consumer a meal solution.

“Our best retailers promote the category in multiple ways,” says Sewall.

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