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FRESH FOOD: Soup: Preferred stock

When it comes to soup in supermarkets, those that think lowbrow chicken noodle and cream of mushroom should think again. Soup is getting hotter as a more upscale amenity in a growing number of stores, whether in fresh refrigerated form, or brand extensions sporting innovative packaging, or distinctive private label or local specialty lines. Retailers and soup suppliers say it's the continual evolution of a trend that started in foodservice, that of offering higher-quality soups that work as hearty, convenient, and, most important, premium meal options

"Many retailers are beginning to pay attention to their customers and coming to realize the power of soup," explains Rod Harris, founder and president of Harry's Fresh Foods, a $50 million soup and entree manufacturer based in Portland, Ore. that has benefited from the trend.

Soup's ascendancy is obvious at Bashas', the 153-unit supermarket chain based in Chandler, Ariz. The retailer is offering up a new line of private label refrigerated soups aimed at consumers who are looking to take home something a little special for quick at-home meal consumption.

The new line comprises eight 24-ounce varieties that retail for $4.99 and complement an existing hot soup program, according to Jay Volk, Bashas' v.p. of food services, bakery, and deli. "They are restaurant-quality," says Volk. "We'll actively sample the soups at store level, and I'm anticipating this will generate big sales for us."

The new line, Bashas' Kitchen Fresh Soups, launches this month in 70 stores. "We're planning to devote additional print ad space for this introduction, and then we'll keep it ongoing during the year," notes Volk. "Hopefully we'll have some radio support, as well."

The eight varieties are chicken and corn chowder, chicken noodle, tomato basil, baked potato, crab and corn chowder, broccoli and cheese, clam chowder, and chicken tortilla, all supplied by Harry's Fresh Foods.

According to Volk, Bashas' hopes the line will help the retailer cash in on its consumers' growing embrace of quality food concepts. "We think this is what our customers are looking for," he says. "They want fresh products that they can just take home. This is a great product for grab-and-go, and it's healthy."

Bashas' was already successfully selling Harry's branded products before it decided to take advantage of the company's ability to provide a private label line, too. "They do a good job," says Volk. "It's made to order in small kettle batches, just for us."

The soup maker Harris says Bashas' strategy is likely to pop up in the playbooks of other retailers, as well. "Many consumers are drifting to higher-quality convenience, and it continues to continue," he says.

The growing popularity of premium soups hasn't gone unnoticed by other soup manufacturers and suppliers, including the traditional national brand companies.

Earlier this summer, market leader Campbell Soup Co., based in Camden, N.J., introduced a new line of superpremium soups, Campbell's Select Gold Label, which the manufacturer describes as "the first line of ready-to-serve, restaurant-quality soups with a thick, velvety texture, and packaged in a carton." Select Gold Label will be available in grocery and specialty stores nationwide by October, at a suggested retail price of $2.99 per 500-milliliter carton. Club stores will get one-liter multipacks.

In addition, Campbell's StockPot unit, based in Woodinville, Wash., recently revealed plans to build a "new, expanded culinary campus" designed to meet strong demand for its premium refrigerated soups sold in deli sections.

Campbell acquired StockPot, Inc., which makes restaurant-quality, fresh refrigerated soups and sauces, in 1998 in a bid to break into the foodservice industry. Over the past four years, StockPot products have achieved double-digit growth, according to Archie van Beuren, president-Campbell Away from Home and Canada, Mexico, and Latin America.

The acquisition now seems well timed to position Campbell with another vehicle for taking advantage of soup's appeal as a potentially better-for-you meal alternative.

"It's important to note that soup is low in fat, low in calories," says John W. Faulkner, Campbell's director of brand communications. "We've done a lot of research that indicates that soup really does fill you up, with fewer calories. Our Healthy Request lineup has performed very well in the pipeline."

While Campbell hasn't yet introduced organic soups, Faulkner notes that the company has taken the leap to organic tomato juice, Swanson broths, Pace salsa, V8 juice, and Prego pasta sauce. "I won't speculate on when or if [organic] soups would be introduced, but we are gaining insights into the organic market and sourcing," he allows.

The Select Gold Label soups have their own health-oriented twist: They're vegetarian and free of artificial flavors or preservatives. All varieties contain from 90 to 120 calories, and four of the five varieties have three to four grams of fiber per serving.

The flavors in the Select Gold Label line will be Roasted Red Pepper and Tomato, Golden Butternut Squash, Blended Red Pepper and Black Bean, Creamy Portobello Mushroom, and Italian Tomato with Basil and Garlic. All varieties, in new aseptic cartons, will be shelved in the soup aisle with Campbell's other ready-to-serve soups.

Taking it higher

Harris of Harry's Fresh Foods credits StockPot for indirectly helping to boost supermarket interest in higher-end soups -- an interest he hopes will continue to benefit his company's line of fresh soup products.

"A lot of grocers are recognizing the importance and power of soup," says Harris. "Safeway has done an outstanding job in this category [with StockPot], with variety and focus. I am mightily impressed with retailers that put their shoulders into it and get it accomplished with fresh soups. I'm encouraging other retailers to do the same."

Indeed, according to Volk, Bashas' added the new private label line from Harry's to compete with Safeway.

Harris' company produces fresh, all-natural soup products using a "small batch" process that provides 60 days of shelf life. Harry's branded soups include Pacific Northwest Clam Chowder, Chicken Tortilla, Chicken Vegetable, Creamy Chicken & Dumpling, Cheddar Broccoli with Tillamook Cheddar, Tomato Gorgonzola with Basil, and Roasted Tuscan Vegetable, along with three Asian varieties. Traditionally they've been packaged in 11-ounce single-serve bowls, but the company has since added 24-ounce family-size portions.

In late September Harry's will launch a new line of single-serve organic soups, to capitalize on growing interest in organic products. While the company's roots are west of Denver, Harry's is currently expanding into the Midwest and East. The brand is now carried by supermarkets and club stores from Florida to Alaska, and additionally provides a private label product for Kroger, according to Harris.

Also seeing some success is a premium private label ready-to-serve product from San Francisco-based Del Monte Foods called Savory Soups. Kevin Holden, Del Monte Corporate Brands' v.p. of marketing and sales, says that while Del Monte sees continuing opportunity with mainstream ready-to serve soup products, retailers are certainly warming up to premium private label programs.

"We're starting to get some traction around the idea of a premium soup under retailers' own premium banners," he says, suggesting that many supermarket operators -- including some of the largest chains -- still have open opportunities in that arena.

"We continue to try to expand that offering with retailers who understand that this gives them an opportunity to differentiate themselves, while at the same time providing consumers with a premium offering as an alternative to the brands," observes Holden. "And that helps to drive higher rings for them, since they no longer have to position the product at a discount."

Holden sums up the trend this way: "Consumers are willing to pay more for a higher-quality, more convenient ready-to-eat soup. I remember when condensed was king in that category. But now there's more of a balance, and people are looking for something that's good for them -- and convenient, too."

While Del Monte doesn't offer the product in an aseptic carton, like Campbell's Select Gold Label, Holden says he intends to carefully monitor consumer acceptance of the packaging. "The question is whether the opportunity is big enough for Del Monte to go there," he says, noting that the company has the capability of doing so if necessary.

Restaurant roots

Meanwhile two retail soup brands that have emerged from well-known seafood restaurants are reporting success in supermarkets. Like Harris, they attribute that success, at least in part, to the growing desire of consumers to expand their taste horizons and provide their families and guests with dishes that go beyond the norm, but without a lot of effort in the kitchen.

In Baltimore and on Maryland's Eastern Shore, Phillips Seafood Restaurants are famed for their crab cakes and other freshly prepared seafood dishes, including cream of crab soup. The company has parlayed that popularity into 17 percent ACV nationally with seven seafood-based soup products, according to Anne North, director of retail marketing at Baltimore-based Phillips Foods, Inc.

"All of our soup sales represent 20 percent of total seafood soup sales in the frozen/refrigerated category," says North, adding that the company's best-selling variety is Cream of Crab, while the fastest-growing is Lobster Bisque.

"I don't know if maybe the success we've seen with our soups is because of the consumer's connection with our brand," she muses. "We're known for our crab cake products, and I think that transfers over to our other retail products."

North says there are three groups of consumers for soup: those who buy what they know and what they're comfortable with, those who'll take recommendations from others and try something new, and those who are "on a quest for something new and different." Phillips offers soup products for all three, with such options as Traditional Clam Chowder, Shrimp Bisque, and Crab and Shrimp Chowder.

While Phillips products are refrigerated, another brand with a restaurant bloodline, Bookbinder's, comes canned and semi-condensed, and is sold in the grocery aisle alongside such mainstream brands as Campbell's, Progresso, and Lipton.

Nazareth, Pa.-based Stephens Original Foods Co. purchased Bookbinder's Soups last April to take advantage of the brand's reputation and the growing interest in specialty foods, according to Mark Stephens, who owns and operates the manufacturer. "This was an opportunity to get the brand in front of people, to get it on display in front of people outside the soup aisle," he says.

"People in general have been dining out more, and it's coming almost full circle now. People are looking to experience that at home. I think a lot of it is attributable to the Food Network and other cooking shows. Everyone wants to be a great chef at home, and it's great for our industry," says Stephens.

The brand's best sellers are Snapper, Lobster Bisque, Manhattan and New England Clam Chowders, Crab Bisque, Shrimp Bisque, Seafood Bisque, Oyster Stew, and Seafood Pepper Pot. "We plan to add at least one new soup variety per year," he says.

While Bookbinder's is strong in the East, particularly in New England, Stephens has plans for growth. "We've already got strong name recognition," he says. "The Bookbinder's brand name is 140 years old."
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