Actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus, in the role of Seinfeld’s Elaine Benes, may have stolen his secret soup recipes in one of the show’s most famous episodes, but Al Yeganeh, the real Soup Man, may have the last laugh.
Until recently, the only way to get his amazing soups—mulligatawny, turkey-chili, chicken-corn chowder, vichyssoise, to cite just a few—was to stand in a long line on the sidewalk at Manhattan’s 55th Street and Eighth Avenue.
Now Yeganeh has formed an ambitious franchise operation, with plans for 1,000 Original Soup Man stores worldwide in the next five to seven years. The first opened in October, in Princeton on the corner of Palmer Square East and Hulfish Street. Husband-and-wife proprietors Scott and Lisa Ruddy say they grabbed the opportunity when Scott, who owns a Manhattan construction company and has bought lunch at the Soup Man for years, spotted a small Now Franchising sign in its window.
“On the first day,” says Lisa, “I looked at the line and said, ‘Is lunch ever going to stop?’ ” And the line does go out the door, often halfway up the block to the Nassau Inn. The most popular soup is the lobster bisque, but on a recent afternoon, an 8-ounce cup of chunky, flavorful crab bisque accompanied by an apple, a slice of five-grain bread, and a piece of dark chocolate was a perfect antidote to the day’s 17-degree chill.
The Ruddys, who live with their three children, ages four, seven, and ten, in South Brunswick, say one of their biggest customer complaints is that the place is too small. “It’s not a sit-down restaurant,” says Lisa, “although I do feel bad sometimes for the customers. But it is what it is.” And the Original Soup Man does not deliver. “Delivery is a risk, going out the door with an eighteen-year-old driver,” Scott says. “We have to sell it at the proper temperature, make sure it’s delivered right.” The Ruddys talk a lot about being in the premium soup business, and maintaining Yeganeh’s quality clearly is a core concept of the franchise.
Early each morning, the soups, cooked according to Yeganeh’s secret recipes, arrive at the shop. The choice of extras—bread, fruit, chocolate—is up to the franchise owner to supply. The franchise requires any soup left at the end of the day to be discarded, so the couple plans to set up a weekly pickup by a local soup kitchen.
So what is the legendary Soup Man really like? “Al is a very private person, very quiet, very humble, very nice,” says Lisa. “He’s all about the soup.” He hasn’t stopped by the Princeton shop yet, but, she says, “he can watch. We have a monitor”—a Webcam—“and he can actually pop in at any time.” It seems bizarre but somehow very Seinfeldian: a disembodied Al Yeganeh secretly watching his test franchise any time, unannounced. In the meantime, get on line in Princeton and stay tuned for an Original Soup Man opening in a town near you.