Al Yeganeh appreciates rules. You may be familiar with some of them. Move to the left. Have your money ready. No chitchat. Don't want to follow Yeganeh's rules? Then good luck getting his soup, as the world discovered when Seinfeld immortalized Yeganeh as the Soup Nazi in a 1995 episode.
But for all his rules for running the soup counter, it is mostly by ignoring the rules of business that Yeganeh built a small New York City storefront into a multimillion-dollar company. Customer service, obviously, was never a priority. Free publicity he could do without. Yeganeh despises the Soup Nazi nickname and has complained that the hordes of Seinfeld fans lining up in front of his shop have ruined his life.
Despite those obstacles and a decade after his initial fame (so much for speed to market), Yeganeh is taking his soup store national. He and a group of partners are expanding the Fifth Avenue tourist magnet (a few blocks from the modest original location) into a 1,000-store franchise called the Original SoupMan. Seventeen are open, with plans for 23 more this year in the U.S. and Canada. Yeganeh has also begun selling packaged soup in grocery stores in 14 states.
That doesn't mean he is about to start following convention. He continues to shun attention, thus getting it. "Al has gone into his temporary hiding mode," says his spokesman. Instead of pep talks, his franchisees get the tough love usually reserved for customers. Yeganeh changes the menu at will, and he will pull a popular soup out of rotation if he thinks it could be better. "We've already had three different kinds of bread," says franchise owner Lisa Ruddy, whose Princeton shop opened in October. "Al is obviously temperamental, but he's an artist," says John Bello, CEO of the new venture, Soup Kitchen International, Inc. "Soup is his life."
Ah, yes, the soup. That's what attracted the hordes paying as much as $30 a serving long before the Seinfeld parody. The soup, most notably the sumptuous lobster and crab bisques, earned him a rating in the Zagat food guide higher than those of some of Manhattan's best chefs. Yeganeh travels the world looking for unusual spices, and each soup is studded with fresh vegetables and meat. "We're sure that there's a strong market out there for these premium soups," says Bello.
Experts agree. Americans consume 10 billion bowls of soup each year, but virtually all at home. While other chains offer soup, few have focused on it as a meal in itself, says Harry Balzer of the NPD Group. Will customers balk at the prices? The 12-oz. SoupMan containers typically sell for $5 to $7. "People just expect soup to be inexpensive," he says.
People once expected coffee to be inexpensive too, counters Richard George, a professor of food marketing at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia. "Just look at Starbucks." The biggest hazard, he says, is maintaining quality across hundreds of outlets. Yeganeh hopes to avoid that by maintaining tight control over production. All the soup sold will be made at two locations, one in Indiana and the other in New Jersey, using a preparation process designed and supervised by Yeganeh.