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Souper Sales

Celebrities bowled over by Original Soupman's tasty product line up to spoon-feed the concept to the public


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Basketball legend Shaquille O’Neal has 24-Hour Fitness franchises, along with Five Guys Burger and Fries and a handful of others—“I don’t like to brag about what I have,” the 7’1”, 375-lb., former all-star told us—so why invest and become the pitchman for The Original Soupman?

“I tasted it one day,” he said. “It’s a good product with a great team. My favorite is the lobster bisque...it has lobster chunks.”

OK, we can see a big man like Shaq liking to put his money where his spoon is, but why did Baseball Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson join the board and become a spokesman for the brand?

“I ate the chicken vegetable, the lobster bisque, the wedding soup,” Jackson says. “They’re all just so good. There’s no downfalls to me. It’s healthy.”

Even actor Jason Alexander, who was thrown out the Soupman’s store twice—once as George in the famous “Seinfeld” episode about the Soup Nazi and again in real life when Alexander tried to return to the restaurant after shooting the segment for a bowl of soup—wanted to get involved with the chain.

Why? Because he liked the soup, according to Sebastian Rametta, executive vice president.

But let’s not forget the celebrity who started it all, Al Yeganeh. Although he never liked the moniker that made him famous (and really, who can blame him?), the TV episode made his soup a celebrity outside New York City, where people routinely lined up and gratefully played by his posted rules: “Pick the soup you want; have your money ready; and move to the extreme left after ordering.”

Even veteran Johnny Rockets franchisee Lloyd Sugarman jumped at the chance to be involved with the brand. Not only did he commit to open a number of units—he declined to confirm how many, saying, “I don’t like the pressure of five a year”—but he has already made a significant improvement to the brand by adding a premium sandwich line. The line will be adopted by new stores coming onboard. “That’s why you get food people (as franchisees),” Rametta points out.

Sandwich offerings can be upgraded, but the soup is the soup, and no one but Al Yeganeh is allowed to monkey with those recipes. “We don’t want them to change the soups,” Rametta says. “Those soups are a God-given gift to Al.” Although the founder is no longer part of the day-to-day operations of the company, he is still the R&D expert. One of his latest  recipes, a Mexicali-bean soup, is on the menu of the New York City school system. “It’s a big initiative to get kids to eat right, eat healthy,” says Rametta.

And big coup for the chain. The bean soup will be introduced in stores as well this month, he adds.

The soup is sent ready-made to the 16 franchisees and they “just heat it and serve,” Rametta says. Typically between eight and 12 soups are available in a store from a “big family of soup,” says Rametta.

Soups “families” are rotated in and out daily. For instance, there’s always a chicken soup, a vegetable variety, a specialty soup like a jambalaya, a seafood soup and some sort of chili. Lobster bisque is the mainstay.

At the grand opening: (left to right)
EVP Sebastian Rametta, Shaq, franchisee Lloyd Sugarman and CEO Arnold Casale.

Soup is an ubiquitous food offering, which is why a store with soup as the draw is not risky business, according to Rametta. Every restaurant—from the corner deli to the Four Seasons—has soup on the menu. People eat soup on a frequent basis, and crave something excellent in their bowl.

They’re seeking venues in high-traffic areas, such as casinos and airports. Sugarman’s second location is in Universal Studios.

“I’m really enjoying this,” Sugarman says. “I used to have to tell people what Johnny Rockets was. Now I just mention Soupman and even landlords know about it. I like to be the girl everyone wants to date with landlords.”

Yaganeh, shared his 40 recipes when Arnold Casale, who cut his teeth in the bagel business, bought the company, but “very few people know what makes Al’s soup, Al’s soup,” Rametta says. It’s a lot like Col. Sanders’ secret mix of 11 herbs and spices, he jokes. And, no, there’s no danger Yeganeh’s soup recipes will end up in the streets in an old armoire, as they did on the Seinfeld episode. The recipes are a guarded secret.

The dish on the celebrities

Please note, the three celebrities bought into the concept, they’re not hired talent. It’s fitting that Shaq is one of the celebrity endorsers, because he refers to himself as “an all-around Superman.” “I’ve been a Renaissance man my whole career, working upstairs and downstairs (in front and behind the scenes, we think),” he said in a soft voice over a bad connection in the D.C. airport. “I’ll open up doors for the chain.”

And if the photos in our cover spread of Shaq appearing at the opening of Sugarman’s Mohegan Sun Casino store are any indicator, Shaq is not only opening doors, he’s  attracting the media in record number to store openings as well. Shaq refers to himself as a “touchable legend,” meaning he interacts with the throng of adoring fans, rather than setting himself apart. He only has one body guard, “who’s not really a body guard,” he contends. More of a handler.

“Shaq brings the fact that he likes the soups enough to bring his fame to the endorsement,” Sugarman says. “He could endorse anything,” so endorsing The Original Soupman is a big plus for the brand, he adds.

How Shaq became “Superman” wasn’t an easy journey. “As a kid I was very tall and very insecure,” he says. “I had to figure out how to get people to treat me like a regular guy.”

It was drilled into him by his family and coaches that image is everything. Which, he says, is why he not only does charity work, but isn’t one of those professional athletes who ends up on the police blotter regularly. In his 19 years in the NBA, he’s won four championships and scored 28,000 points (even though he missed a few foul shots). Shaq is over his rap career after four albums and is working on an advanced degree in human resources, along with expanding his business offerings. And you can catch him on TNT’s “Inside the NBA,” where he’ll match wits with another funny former all-star, Charles Barkley.

Before Shaq joined the team, slugger/outfielder Reggie Jackson was handling the grand openings on his own. “People flock (to the openings),” Rametta says. “Sometimes other stars show up because they know Reggie.”

Instead of the traditional ribbon cutting, Jackson swings a meat cleaver to cut vegetables.

“New York is like a second home to me,” Jackson says during a call from his residence in the Oakland, California, area. “My career blossomed there.”

Jackson, who ended his baseball career with the Oakland A’s, was part of the magical Yankee dominance, when he earned the nickname Mr. October, because his bat seemingly came alive during post-season play.

Flashing a million-dollar smile, Soup Man investor-spokesman Reggie Jackson was the first celebrity to sign on to the famous franchise. One of his many sound investments.

“I made great money. I was at the top of the heap at the time,” he says, adding, “and I made a lot off the field.”

He used that money to buy cars and property, homes and buildings that maintained their value. He also bought stocks. “I wasn’t a wizard, but I bought Apple, GE; I bought art and baseball memorabilia (predominately that of baseball legend Ty Cobb).”

He wasn’t one of those athletes who burned through their significant salaries, he says, because, he “didn’t spend more than I earned. I believed in managing debt.” Some thing he says he learned from Bob Mercer, the former chairman of Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. “I still remember his debt-to-equity comments to me,” Jackson says.

He may have been cocky on the field, but Jackson learned from the people running the business. “I had a lot of fun in my career,” he reminisced. “I was around some tough owners that made good decisions.”
Was his philosophy of buying assets that accrue value unique among his ball-playing peers? “I was probably more odd than unique,” he replies.

He’s still under contract with the Yankees, but claims he doesn’t talk finances with today’s Yankees stars. “They’re very closed-minded about their money,” he says. “People (handlers) around them guard them so much. I’m close to Jeter, Alex (Rodriguez) and Mariano Rivera, but when it comes to money, it’s something you don’t discuss.”

His advice to young pro athletes is something management probably doesn’t want to hear: “You don’t need to own restaurants. Start warehousing $100 bills. Hire an ex-military guy with a forklift.” And it wouldn’t hurt to also buy the “stocks that run the world,” like GE and Apple. Just don’t expect to get them for the same price Jackson did.

Jason Alexander will perform his spokesman duties through cable TV commercials, Rametta says.

There are a few ripples in the soup’s surface, however. While Rametta and Casale, and even Sugarman, claim having the soup available online, and in supermarkets, helps the brand, that practice has caused lawsuits in other systems, such as Carvel Ice Cream back in the ‘90s. Casale says he faced the same challenge when he was in the bagel business, and that supermarket sales help reinforce the brand. “You should have the same brand at home that you have at work (during lunch out),” adds Rametta.

The soups are in the frozen food section, but they’ll soon be released in new packaging that’s not frozen.

We’ve tasted several bowls of the soup and we, too, are sold on it.

We’re not ready to buy a franchise, but Mr. Casale, we are ready for our close-up. 

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