‘No soup for you!" Every Seinfeld fan will immediately identify this sentence with the episode that parodied mercurial Manhattan soup store owner Al Yeganeh, who will forever be known, much to his fury, as the Soup Nazi.
Yeganeh is now franchising his famous soups. There are to be 1,000 Original Soup Man restaurants, and the very first outlet has opened this week on Palmer Square, right next to the Nassau Inn.
Owners Lisa and Scott Ruddy are as personable as Yeganeh is cranky. His rules – Have your money ready! Step to the extreme left! – are posted on the wall of their store. But do the couple expect to poundtheir fists and eject customers who dither when deciding between seafood bisque and corn chowder?
"Oh no!" says Lisa, a petite brunette with a charming smile. There will be soup for everybody at her new store. Even Elaine Bennis types, who drum their fingers on the countertop, going over the choices out loud and holding up the line, will leave with soup – and without a scolding.
The rules are just common sense, says Lisa, gently defending Yeganeh, whose website contact information reads, in huge red flashing letters, "We Don’t Respond to All E-mail Messages." Her mother, Sarah DeSimone, on hand to help out in the week before the grand opening, is also ready to stand up for the Soup Man. "I always have my money out when I’m in line to buy anything," she says. Joining the conversation, Scott Ruddy takes a second away from his last-minute meetings with vendors and inspectors to defend Yeganeh.
"Nazi is a terrible thing to call anybody," he says, "and especially Al, who’s from over there, from Europe." Besides, he continues, Yeganeh is a good man. "He feeds the homeless," he says. "It’s well known. They come to his line, and they’re the first to get soup."
Lisa explains that, aside from the odious label, Yeganeh’s anger stems from the public perception that the Seinfeld program made him famous. This is not so, he has told the Reddys. People were lining up for his soup for a decade before the Seinfeld episode aired.
Whatever the source of his fame, a group of well-heeled investors has decided that Yeganeh’s product – and his name – are good enough to launch a brand new franchise empire. In an October 19 article, Business Opportunities Journal (www.boj.com) stated that 15 investors have put in "six figure" amounts to get Yeganeh’s soup simmering on a large scale. CNN Money has identified one of the investors as Reggie Jackson.
John Bello is CEO of the take-out restaurant chain. After a career with NFL Properties, the marketing arm of the NFL, he went on to develop and market the SoBe brand of herb-infused bottled beverages, which he sold to Pepsi in 2000, for a price that CNN Money put at $370million.
Bello, who has a number of business interests, runs the company, which is now headquartered at Cook College, "from on-high," says Robert Ilvento. An entrepreneur who founded the Cluck U Chicken chain when he was a 19-year-old, Ilvento is now spending nearly all of his time consulting to the Original Soup Man.
He took on the job after talking with Seb Rametta, a principal in the soup store company, whom he met through a mutual friend. "I’m helping with the menu and the model," says Ilvento. He says that he is one of 15 or 20 "top food executives" working at Rutgers’ Cook College Campus to turn Yeganeh’s lovingly tended soup pots into a chain of restaurants, which, he says, will soon number 160.
Apparently the soup impresario inspires fear not only in his customers, but also in his business associates. Initially eager to talk about its new FDA-approved commercial kitchen, as well as its program of helping entrepreneurs turn a homemade sauce or dessert intoa business, Cook College’s spokespeople now clam up tighter than the steamed bi-valves in a good chowder at the very mention of Yeganeh’s name.
There is some disagreement over just how involved Yeganeh is in the development of the chain that bears his name. He is rarely in Piscataway, says Ilvento. "No, I see him there all the time," says Lisa Ruddy. In any case, Ilvento ays that Yeganeh does not have an ownership interest in the company, but rather is paid licensing fees for his recipes and for his name and image.
The soups will all be made at the Cook College headquarters and shipped to the stores – at least for now. Cook College is an interim headquarters, says Ilvento. At some point a permanent headquarters will be established, and some of the soup will start to ship from the Mid-West.
Meanwhile, the Princeton Soup Man restaurant is about to open. Black countertops are polished, the tiny kitchen – with panini grills as well as soup wells – is fully fitted-out. A small, windowed, slightly-elevated area, ringed by a narrow, chest-high counter is ready to serve as a perch for customers who want to stick around in the largely take-out restaurant to eat their soup. Looking over it all is a large Yeganeh likeness, painted high on the wall customers will face as they take their places in line.
There is no way to miss the Yeganeh portrait, but some may not notice the electronic device hanging near it. "It’s a webcam," says Ilvento. "Al is going to have them in all of his stores so that he can see what is going on." As if that is not enough to make store owners and customers alike a tad nervous, Ilvento adds, "and he’ll be able to talk to the customers." (Okay, no kidding, maybe it is a good idea to have exact change ready.)
Unfazed by either her business’ namesake or his omnipresent management style, Lisa sits down to talk about how she and her husband became the first Original Soup Man franchisees.
Scott, a Manhattan construction company owner, had long been a big fan of Yeganeh’s soups. "One day he was in line and he saw a signadvertising for franchisees," recounts Lisa. "He called me right away, and said he wanted to do it."
The couple, who live in South Brunswick, had talked about owning a small, local eatery of some sort for years. "I’m in sales by nature," says Lisa, an FIT graduate (Class of 1992) who was a Nordstrom executive before stopping work to raise a family. They had looked around, considered an ice cream store, but had put the idea on hold until Scott saw that sign.
"It was the soup," says Scott, whose favorite is seafood bisque. "That’s why we wanted to do this."
"It’s a product we believe in," adds Lisa, whose favorite is the vegetable.
The franchise fee was about $30,000, and additional costs, including build-out were between $80,000 and $150,000. (Ilvento provides the figures after the Reddys demur.)
"Some people are buying 30 franchises," says Lisa, "but we knew we wanted only one." The family is not embarking on this business to become rich, she says, pointing out that Scott’s sheet metal construction company, High Velocity, with 25 employees and accounts with the Trump organization, Goldman Sachs, and AOL Time Warner, is "very successful."
Besides, she says, sounding just the tiniest bit like Yeganeh, "on-site management is important." In her opinion, a business cannot operate up to its potential if the owners are not around. Control is important, and one family member will be on hand at all times to maintain it. Lisa will open the restaurant and work until late afternoon, when she will head home to care for couple’s three children. Her husband will come home from Manhattan to pick up the evening shift. The kids, too, will be involved. Alexandra, age 9, can’t wait to work the cash register. Nicholas, age 7, is eager to man the surveillance cameras, and Hannah, age 4, will have a big role in keeping the grand opening balloons in the air.
In addition to knowing that she wanted just one store, Lisa knew just exactly where she wanted it. "It had to be Princeton," she says. "It’s a beautiful place to come to work." The family enjoys strolling around town, and thinks that the fact that Princeton is a walking town – with lots of foot traffic – will help the business. Palmer Square’s management, she says, was welcoming and helpful. Another help could be the new plaza in front of the Princeton Public Library, a perfect place to enjoy a bowl of soup.
No Soup Man restaurants will offer seating, says Ilvento. Yeganeh’s original restaurant – on West 55th Street – offers no place at all to even perch. Many – probably the majority – of the new chain’s stores will be in malls or airports. A big reason, says Ilvento, is that a smaller space equals a lower rent.
The restaurants will, however, offer more than soup. The soups are the focus, for sure, but there will be four panini choices, priced from $3.95 to $5.95, and a "create your own salad" option, for $4.50. There will be nine soup choices a day, chosen from a revolving menu of 30. Soup can be purchased as a cup ($4.95 to $7.95), a bowl ($6.95 to$7.95), a quart ($18.95 to $21.95) or a gallon ($69.95 to $89.95). Each order of soup comes with bread, a piece of fruit, and a chocolate. Beverages include a large variety of home-brewed teas. There are a few dessert choices, including a dessert panini and a yogurt parfait.
At one point, Lisa Ruddy says of eccentric soup maven Yeganeh, "Soup is his life." But it isn’t her life, at least not her whole life – or her husband’s. They are busy with their children, and he is involved in his construction company. And while Yeganeh refuses to divulge any part of his biography, the Reddys are happy to talk about theirs.
They both spent a good part of their childhoods in Ringwood, but did not meet in the schoolyard. Rather, Scott, who had taken off for California as a teen-ager, spotted Lisa on a visit home, when she was about 16 and he was a year older. "That’s the girl I’m going to marry," he told his friends. They didn’t speak for over two years, until their paths crossed at a party. From then on, they were inseparable. They married in 1992, shortly after Lisa finished college and Scott finished his apprenticeship.
"It was love at first sight," says Scott.
The question now is whether their new enterprise, the Original Soup Man restaurant, will garner the same affection from its public. As owners of the first outlet in the chain, Lisa says that she and Scott realize that theirs is "a test restaurant." Attractive and energetic – "She’s always been energetic, like her father," says her mom – Lisa seems more than ready for the spotlight and the challenge.
Boyish and friendly, the polar opposite of Yeganeh on the approachability scale, Scott too is eager to start ladling up Mulligatawny and sausage gumbo. Juggling soup and sheet metal will be no problem, he is sure. After all, he says, he now has two partners to help out with his New York City business. But it’s a good bet that he has never had a partner like the man on the other side of his in-store webcam. He might want to consider raising his soft voice and practicing shouting "Next!"
The Original Soup Man, 30 Palmer Square East, Princeton. 609-497-0008. Open Monday to Saturday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., to 7 p.m. on Sunday.