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Soupy Tales

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As the mall culture continues to take the country by storm, food plays an increasingly important role, with  food courts choc-a-block with the latest in food service offerings. The new kid on the block in terms of food concepts comes in the form of The Soup Bowl. Shanti Padukone finds out more…

We’ve been there and done that with pizzas-pastas-burgers, Indian Chinese, chaat, ice creams, idli-dosa, coffee — you name it. Still, food courts in malls today are bursting with such outlets, each one coming up in a newer avatar. That’s why even a tiny, 36-sq. ft. that is as warm and cozy as the piping hot soups it doles out comes as a fresh breath of air. The Soup Bowl was started by Kinzal Vadera, Director, Buzzaar Foods Pvt. Ltd., in 2009 with the first outlet opening up at , Malad in Mumbai. Consequently, today, the brand has two outlets in Mumbai and four in Bangalore — all in malls.

Concept Call

For Vadera, a keen entrepreneur in the mall events business and with a history of media, the field of retail was wide open. But, “like any other average Indian” Vadera dreamt of owning his own food outlet. What he wanted was to venture into something different; something unique that noone has ever tried before. But why soups?

Sometimes all you need is a soup to do away with life’s worries, believes Vadera. He says, “No concept in the world specialises in only soups. Plus, with the increasing awareness amongst the public of eating more hygienic fare, The Soup Bowl is dedicated to the 5 percent of the population that believes that they should eat right.” Having observed the kind of outlets present in food courts, over the years, Vadera realised that people cannot have junk or oily food everyday; hence, he positioned The Soup Bowl to bring about a change in this sphere. The concept is also loosely based upon the legendary Soupman in the US, which is more of a take-away concept, where people line up outside the store to buy soup pastes and powders to prepare at home.

Opening Up

The Soup Bowl is still a minnow in the food and beverage section, feels Vadera. The new concept led to a lot of interest amongst customers; however, this has not yet translated into stable cash flow. On opening in 2009 at Inorbit Mall, the outlet received hordes of customers claiming that the brand had finally bridged the gap in the food industry.

However, the first outlet came with its own set of concerns. Before launching the brand, Vadera didn’t conduct any research, thinking that it would limit his extent of creativity, plus there was no market he could tap and observe. He figured that if one outlet failed, he could close it without anyone even noticing that something was amiss. So, he went through a series of trials where he gathered around 300 people — friends, friends of friends, random people he’d met at the mall, etc — to taste his soups. Then, one day before the launch, he visited the food court at the mall to get an idea of his neighbours. There, he discovered that the three to four outlets that had soups on their menu were serving just 5-10 portions of it per day. “That’s when my plan crashed,” confesses Vadera, “because I needed to sell at least 50-80 cups per day to survive.” Still, he went ahead, and the first day saw the outlet selling close to 250 cups! As the trend caught on, the outlet made more sales. As a result, what was just a 0.2 percent contribution of sales by soups to the overall food sales of the food court, is now 2 percent, which is a huge thing for the brand.

Six months later, Vadera opened his second outlet at Oberoi Mall in Goregaon. And, soon he was spreading his wings. One more outlet opened up at Koram Mall in Thane and soon the franchise model was launched. While the Inorbit Mall outlet closed a few years later due to very high rentals, The Soup Bowl is now present in four malls in Bangalore all under one franchisee. With this model, the concept also expanded from a 36 sq ft kiosk to a cafe setting of around 430 sq ft, which is present at . This allows customers to sip soup from double-eared bowls and relax just like in a coffee shop, amongst an array of soups, sandwiches and salads.

On the menu 

The Soup Bowl currently has around 20-25 varieties of soups. And, a few varieties of sandwiches and salads. The broths are, to a large extent, divided and amount to around 10-12 in number. The cream-based broth includes cream of broccolli, vegetable and mushroom, while the clear broth includes clear manchurian and momo soup, and so on. Add-ons include garlic bread, which is most preferred, along with breadsticks, which also come in a foot-long size, and croutons. Apart from this, garnishes are chilli flakes, oregano, garlic, pepper, basil and celery. Most people opt for the former two since they are most familiar with those.

Vadera believes in the Subway strategy, where the regular veggies and meats are complemented by sauces that favour the Indian palate. As a result, the soups at The Soup Bowl too have a touch of Indianness. Vadera has a team working on the flavour profile of the soups. As a result, the French onion soup may not be as authentic, with a hint of spice, but then, as Vadera says, it gives one the best of both worlds. Another strategy is the offer of soup/salad/sandwich of the month, which ensures that customers have one more reason to visit The Soup Bowl.

Currently, Vadera is all geared up to make a splash at his new outlet at the upcoming in Thane in mid-2013, where he will be working on having around 40 odd varieties of soups. Moreover, his salad and sandwich range will be much wider, reaching up to about 12 to 14 sandwiches. He also introduced the concept of soupy meals some time ago where a bowl full of vegetables and/or meat is filled with a broth and eaten piping hot. These meals come in with rice, noodles or pasta. Soon, this will go up to 10 varieties. Another exciting development will be the alphabet soup (soup with noodles shaped like alphabets).

Cuisine Watch

In terms of cuisine, The Soup Bowl has Chinese, Mexican, Continental soups and even Indian Shorbas. Mexican and Chinese are most popular. However, according to Vadera, surprisingly, the continental cream-based soups have most often outsold the Chinese varieties. Even mushroom soups are fast selling. In terms of Indian fare, the menu currently has tamatar ka shorba and adrak ka shorba. But, Vadera’s team is conducting extensive research on mulligatawny soups, dal shorbas and paya soup, which will all launch at Vivacity. The price range is reasonable with Rs 70 for cream varieties and Rs 90 for more exotic varieties like the Cream of Broccoli or the Chicken tortilla soup — all inclusive of taxes. Currently, the fastest selling soup by far is the tortilla soup with a fajita seasoning imported from Mexico. Footfalls per outlet come up to 80-120 people depending mainly on whether its a weekday or a weekend. On an average, in any given outlet, sales range from Rs 3-3.5 lakhs per month, but Vadera says, “We see a potential of making Rs 5-6 lakhs per month, which is possible with a good outlet offering a good dine-in experience.” On an average, a The Soup Bowl outlet needs 18-24 months to break even, with factors like location and catchment area being the biggest influencers. And, the turnover has been calculated as Rs 1-1.5 crore purely from soups.

Back-end Operations

Soup pastes are manufactured for The Soup Bowl by a wholesale manufacturer. Vegetables per outlet are freshly procured daily. Kitchens are located at each outlet. This is mainly because soup is a liquid that is high risk during transport, and freshness goes for a toss. The operations also involve keeping track of the performance of each outlet everyday to get an idea of what to expect in terms of demand. A lot of research has gone into ensuring that standardisation is done.

While some of the pre-prepared pastes are exclusive to The Soup Bowl, others aren’t, but recipes are tweaked to ensure that there are no copy cats. The brand also has a 30-point check list and daily audits, which give the back-end staff an idea of how much food is wasted and how. And as a result, not too much produce is stored in the kitchen in the first place.

Franchise Model

Outside of Mumbai, Vadera plans to recreate this experience through the franchise model. He currently works with one franchisee in Bangalore, who handles all the four outlets of The Soup Bowl there. Vadera’s criteria for a franchisee includes that they should have the finances to linger till break-even for longer, they should be passionate about food and maintain a personal touch throughout operations – including surprise checks, broth tasting, interaction with customers, etc.

The franchise model involves a franchise fee, as usual. What is unusual is that the agreements with the locations are done between Vadera and the owner of the space in the mall or on high street. “We want it to be a continuous affair,” he affirms. “If there is a short-sighted franchisee who wants to make a quick buck and enters into an agreement with us just because of the wow factor and then wants to quit, I don’t want The Soup Bowl to lose out on the location and catchment. Not only is it difficult to find a new location but in such a scenario one would again have to invest in fit outs, etc.” As a result, the role of the franchisee is to manage daily operations at the outlet. Supervisors are divided between four outlets to check on the taste, freshness, quantity of service. Vadera also has access to live feeds from all his outlets, where he can observe the staff’s interactions with the crowd at any point in time.

In terms of support offered, the biggest is that Vadera assures the franchisee that till the outlet starts making profits, he will not demand the fixed percentage that has to be paid to the brand overall, despite the agreement saying so. “We understand that some months will be bad, some starts will be delayed. We will share revenues and give inputs. Moreover, we ensure that for the first 15 days, a chef is present at a franchised outlet to correct any niggling issues.”

Training Employees

The Soup Bowl has a total of four people at the back end, including a chef. At the front, each outlet has one cashier and servers. During the launch of an outlet, the chef and the operations person take the staff through a seven-day on-the-job training process (apart from 15 days off-the-job training provided when they are hired). Vadera says that making soups is not a very complicated process. The staff is trained in making soups, correcting them, discerning whether something is spoilt or not, and making decisions of throwing out spoilt stuff. “We have surprise training strategies too, wherein we might put lime into the cream to make it curdle. The point is that the server must realise that it is not servable. This gives us an idea of how well a server has picked up on his training.”

Challenges and Learnings

Just being in the food industry means a number of challenges. Some of the major ones for Vadera include staff attendance, license issues, tax and excise related issues, etc. However, he is confident that the administration level issues have been sorted. What remains are operational issues, which include negative feedback from customers, mistakes at the service end, issues associated with equipment.

Another challenge is the overhead costs that are rising due to limited outlets. Vadera says, “For instance, my chef’s cost has to be apportioned over just five outlets. Had we had 10-15 outlets, it would make my back end more robust.” Moreover, trials at just five outlets versus those at 15 outlets generate slower feedback. But, after a point, most people tend to gravitate towards fast food joints. The redeeming factor is that customer repeats have been very high, and their feedback is valuable. Lots of people come in asking the staff to introduce soups that they may have tried abroad.

The Way Ahead

Apart from franchising and seeking investor support, The Soup Bowl plans to go high street in a big way. Airports, corporate parks and hospitals are on the agenda. Moreover, it is looking at setting up in tourist destinations especially in the North. Immediate plans involve opening 20 outlets in the next two years — one outlet per month. Vadera intends for them to be in high street suburbs like Bandra, Andheri, Khar, Powai, in Mumbai and in Bangalore and Delhi. Apart from that, retailing their soups/pastes is on the map now, but it will take time. Vadera wants to first amass a critical mass of 40-80 outlets.

He continues to be excited about the concept. Plus, given that currently there is no such competition — if you disregard that Maggis and Knorr might come up with a food service concept — he is hopeful that it can become the the first Indian brand in a westernised concept to go abroad.