Marketing Soup 101
...In the Footsteps of a Food Critic
(e-SoupSong 14: June 1, 2001)
ONCE UPON A TIME, Washington Post restaurant critic Tom Sietsema went to the lush Greenbrier resort in West Virginia to discuss "Writing Over a Hot Stove" with some 70 enthusiastic food writers. I was one of them.
Tom was great--forthright, articulate, full of unexpected insights. "One thing that's interesting," he said, "is to look at the different ways restaurants market their food on their menus. Menus," he said, "are the reflection of the chefs themselves--their distinctive approach to food, whether playful or serious, expansive or minimalist."
Huh! I thought to myself. That is SO interesting. And what about soup? I'll bet a systematic study of menu soups would speak volumes about the chefs who make and describe them; the cultures that produced them in the first place; the people who order and eat them; not to mention current trends in soupery. This could be profound, I told myself. My readers need to know about this.
I couldn't wait to get home to Washington, DC, to start the study.
First stop, the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington. President and CEO Eric Peterson was immensely helpful. "Oh heavens," he said, "There are over 7,000 eating establishments in the Washington metropolitan area."
Ouch! So much for a comprehensive study. Well, I thought, how can I narrow this project and still come up with some interesting and valid conclusions? I needed a list of restaurants that was both logical and manageable...something I could trust...someBODY I could trust. Hey, wait a minute--how about looking up restaurants that Tom Sietsema himself has recommended?
I hit paydirt almost immediately.
In October 2000, Tom had published a long article about his final 8 months as a food reporter, right before assuming the sacerdotal robes of Restaurant Critic for The Washington Post. Without an expense account, he ate out almost every day, with friends and family...and, by his own account, spent almost $19,000 of his own money. By my reckoning, that averages out to nearly $80 a day, every day, for some 240 days. Whew!
In the end, Tom came up with a list of 30 restaurants in the area that he said he "would go to on his own dime."
This is not the same as "best." Not the same as "favorite." It's different--deliciously imprecise and raising issues of "disposable time," "disposable income," the meaning of "money's worth," personal idiosyncracies, even values. I was enchanted. I was intrigued. What are these Tom Sietsema restaurants like, I asked myself...and what kind of soup might they serve?
Thus began my 24-day odyssey in the footsteps of Tom Sietsema--analyzing menus, yes, but then stepping inside, looking around, irresistibly sitting down and eating a bowl of soup. In the end, I got to 20 of those 30 restaurants (2, alas, did not serve soup) and spent just over $300. Did I get my money's worth? You bet I did.
What do you get when you cross 7 American restaurants, 2 French, 2 Chinese, 2 Japanese, 2 Latin/Spanish, 2 Italian, and 1 each of Indian, Middle Eastern, and Vietnamese?
You get my Tom Sietsema Personally Preferred Restaurant Database.
All together, these 20 restaurants offered 103 soups--and not one of them the same! So much for soup trends.
The range of offerings? One delicious little boutique restaurant unexpectedly served just one soup--a smoky lima bean puree--as a gift from the chef, though no soups were actually on the menu. It came in a demitasse cup with a demitasse spoon on the side. At the other end of the spectrum, a Vietnamese restaurant offered 52 different soups, and all of them drop dead fabulous if the soup I tried (the number 104: Canh Chua Cá Hoc Tôm) was any indication.
And price range? We're talking about everything from $.75 (rice congee) to $15 (shark fin and crab soup--which I didn't eat, on environmental grounds).
WHAT ABOUT THE MENUS? SOLID MARKETING PRINCIPLES AT WORK?
Bust. These menus had no zip at all. I was looking for evidence of Charles Frazer's 7 creative marketing strategies, Hugh Rank's Intensify/Downplay schemes, at the very least Vance Packard's appeals to subconscious human needs.
What did I get? Of the 18 restaurants that served soup, 17 of them used plain black type and 14 printed the black type on white or cream-colored menu paper. Nothing there to seduce the senses. And instead of using cleverly persuasive adjectives, 13 merely itemized what was in the soup ("puree of English peas with garlic custard and fresh morels"); 4 just named them ("Broccoli soup"); and one (see above) wasn't on the menu at all. If it was an ethnic restaurant, the entry might appear in its native tongue, but again, just a factual description ("Zuppa di pomodoro e finocchi o servita con e pomodoro a cubetti e pancetta coccante"), followed by its English translation ("Tomato and fennel soup served with shallots, diced tomatoes, and crispy pancetta"). Only 9 chefs identified themselves and their staff--and only 3 put a philosophical statement of cuisine on the menu.
Where is the playfulness, I wondered? Where is the je ne sais quoi of the chefs and their soups?
IS IT IN THE RESTAURANTS THEMSELVES?
Once I saw the menu study wasn't going very far, I thought about how a restaurant's atmosphere could conduce to persuasion. I started looking around.
Here we go again. Of the 20 restaurants I reviewed, 16 used white tableclothes and set the tables with a full panoply of silver and glassware. Nineteen set out chairs with wooden backs, wooden legs, and upholstered seats. All 20 were small, intimate settings with light colored walls, lots of windows or mirrors, discreet lighting (especially wall sconces), elegant pictures, natural or faux natural floor coverings, and mostly tiny table groupings--kind of architectural and beautifully designed, if you know what I mean. And did I mention the music? Eighteen of these 20 restaurants piped in either soft pop in any number of languages...or very very cool jazz. Think Ella Fitzgerald. Imagine, she was singing soulfully over the speakers in 3 different restaurants, brief though my visits were.
There was no assault on the senses or defenses of the diner in any of these places. They were understated to the max, cool and clean. They were all the same.
Bottom line: the physical aspects of these particular restaurants were NOT designed to market the food, except in the most fundamental, low key way; that is, providing a setting for the rich jewels of food produced by the chefs.
IT'S THE SOUP, STUPID!
Indeed, these soups were their own best sales reps. Among the beauties I ate along the way: Carrot and habanero pepper puree sprinkled with black olive, scallion, and chicken bits and topped with a cilantro leaf; Parmentiére de moules et poireaux; Chilled spring onion soup topped with morel mushrooms, scallions, and garlic potato chips; Consommé de Canard aux Ris de Veau et Champignon de chene; Miso soup with wakame, tofu cubes, and scallion greens; New Orleans Filé Gumbo; Xue Cai Rosi Mian; and Zuppa di scarola al brodo di verdure. The Mulligatawny Soup at the Indian restaurant was such a subtle statement: while all the traditional Indian food there was served in ceramic folk dishes, this nontraditional soup from the British colonial period was served in an elegant European 2-handled white cup and served with a thin slice of lemon floated on top. In its own quiet way, it shouted "This Is Really A British Soup, Not An Indian Soup At All."
And as I sat in these beautiful understated restaurants, eating superb soups prepared by outstanding chefs, I thought about lessons learned.
First, the more accomplished the chef, the less likely he or she will resort to standard marketing gimmicks. As I said: it's the soup, stupid. You wouldn't expect to sell the Mona Lisa with a snappy brochure--the painting sells itself.
Second, that Tom Sietsema is one nice guy as well as a fine food critic. It was weird following in his footsteps, seeing how alike the menus, decors, ambiance, styles were, place after place, no matter what the cuisine. I couldn't help but think by the end that his chosen restaurants clearly reflected his own personality, just as he thought menus reflect their chefs. And what did I see? A complete lack of pretension or egoism--and a cerebral approach to la bonne vie that found keenest pleasure in the integration of food, friendship, and atmosphere. Every newspaper should be so lucky to have such a food critic.
Third, I learned that soup can be spectacular.
PRESENTATION, PRESENTATION,, PRESENTATION
If you're still with me, I'd love to tell you about it: some of the special soups that would surely make your dinner party guests swoon.
First, run don't walk to buy white flat soup plates if you don't already have them. Eight restaurants used them to wonderful effect, capitalizing on their huge diameter surface to accent the soup with exquisitely designed garnishes. Example: that Italian tomato-fennel soup I mentioned earlier? It came with a domed lid. When the waiter whipped the lid off in front of me, I was stunned to see an empty bowl with bits of tomato, chives, and crisped pancetta artfully arranged in the bottom. Step two: the waiter approaches with a gravy boat of hot pureed tomato-fennel broth and fills the bowl in a circular motion that sweeps the garnishes into the center until they float out on a huge exhalation of spiced aroma. Wow.
Chinese Hot and Sour Noodle Soup also had a great gimmick with a lid. It came in a gold footed bowl and was topped by a lid with a red spoon on it. When the waiter removed the cover, the spoon decanted gently into the bowl in a "ready-to-eat" position.
Here's a failure that started with a good idea: Sopa de tomillo fresco, or Fresh thyme soup with bread and quail egg. Nice concept and easy to make, with hot broth poured over a slice of crusty bread in the middle and with a tiny poached pigeon's egg along side. But the broth was tepid...and covered with fine globules of orange fat--plus the egg wasn't trimmed, so that brown wisps of its white were afloat everywhere. Ick.
As for just plain beautiful and delish:
FROM THE SUBLIME TO THE RIDICULOUS: STALKING TOM SIETSEMA
- French potato-leek soup that arranged 4 fat mussels in a flat soup plate, ladled the soup just shy of their tops, and ended with a sprinkle of fresh snipped chives.
- Chicken noodle soup so stuffed with tiny bits of carrots, tomato, and celery, big chunks of grilled chicken, and pasta bits that you needed a doctor's prescription to buy it.
- Spring vegetable minestrone with rosmarino pasta and basil pesto that came with a tiny colorful dice of 12 different vegetables and pasta bits floating in an absolutely crystal clear broth. Pesto comes on the side with a silver spoon--it's up to you the diner to transform that clear lagoon into a muddy, aromatic Sargasso Sea.
- Vietnamese shrimp sour soup that put beautifully sliced shrimp, sprouts, scallions, tomatoes, red peppers, pinapple, elephant ear, okra, and the intriguing rice paddy herb (limnophila gratissima) into a bowl the size of a football helmet, all in a light fish broth soured with tamarinds. Rice and hot bird peppers on the side. Served with towels to mop head sweats.
Just because life is funny, I ended up getting ahead of Tom's footsteps. Late into my search, I earmarked one of his restaurants for a late afternoon lunch. I walked in about 2:15; the waiter was totally uninterested in seating me; so I was just standing around, tapping my feet and waiting, when I happened to look up...straight into the eyes of Tom S. himself, sitting at the bar, clearly at the end of one of his undercover assessments.
I was so stunned and surprised that I walked over. Now, I was fully confident that I could carry on a covert conversation with him--sharing with him what I was doing without tipping the place to his identity. But, of course, HE didn't know that. By now, I'm standing next to him and calling his first name only--he swings around and looks at me...without one scintilla of recognition. "Tom," I say, "I heard you speak at the Greenbrier and just wanted to tell you how your presentation inspired me." He turned white. I could see he was nervous that I was going to blow his cover, and that made me nervous. But there I was, having to say SOMETHING at that point, so I blurted out everything all in a rush and ended up saying, "so, in a sense, I've been stalking you." At this point, he's the color of chalk, so I add, "but in the most positive kind of way!"
"Oh, that's good, that it's in a positive way, I mean" he said.
Thank you, Tom. I hereby nominate you for The Good Sport of the Year Award.
p.s. Many thanks to Maggie, Art, Kerri, Ray, Wanda, and Denise for being such souperb souping partners throughout the month.
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NEXT MONTH: WHAT'S THE STORY ON THE COLD FRUIT SOUP FRONT?
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