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Yes, Soup for You!

The Original SoupMan has finally hit its stride.
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Imagine if everyone in the U.S. had heard of a product and universally agreed it to be the best on the market, but only a fraction of consumers had actually tasted it. That's the situation The Original SoupMan has been in for the past two decades. But things are about to change.

Al Yeganeh started his soup shop in 1984 on 55th Street and 8th Avenue in Manhattan, creating a culinary superstorm when customers got a taste of his lobster bisque and mulligatawny. More than 10 years later, the local secret hit the world stage when TV's Seinfeld satirized Yeganeh and his strict ordering procedures in the classic "Soup Nazi" episode. Yeganeh and the "No soup for you!" catchphrase became cultural touchstones overnight.

But capitalizing on that popularity was a problem for the company. Since the '90s, Yeganeh has tried flash-freezing his soup and selling it on home-shopping networks. He has had ups and downs in trying to franchise. In recent years he has had some success selling a frozen version of his soups in New York-area grocery stores.

But this year, Soupman, the corporate parent, has finally hit its stride under new CEO Lloyd Sugarman, a franchise innovator who owns 17 Johnny Rockets units. (Yeganeh is still head of R&D and all things soup.) SoupMan has rolled out its soups in new Tetra Pak aseptic packaging to more than 4,000 supermarkets and 500 Walmarts and is preparing to launch a fleet of franchised soup trucks. Sugarman also has revamped the company's 24-unit brick-and-mortar franchising program, rebranding the outlets as Al's Famous New York Delicatessen and Restaurant and adding sandwiches, sides and breakfast to the SoupMan offerings on the menu.

We caught up with Sugarman between slurps of Yankee bean and bacon to learn more about his plans.

Why has it taken so many years to do a big grocery-store rollout? Because of the recipes, the only way we could do it at first was in a frozen state, which has a very small market and is inconvenient. The frozen market is a $150 million industry, but the canned-food industry is an elephant--$6 billion. It was impossible to can Al's soup and keep the quality. Then we realized that Tetra Pak might let us reach the next level. They're the key. They let us duplicate the flavor found in our stores.

This is going to give us unlimited sales. It's funny--other than Campbell's and Progresso, we're the third best-known soup brand in the U.S., but no one has tasted us.

What is the food-truck strategy?
There are a lot of people who aren't chefs but want to get into the food-truck business, which looks like it has a lot of life left--at least the next five years. This is a franchise people can identify with. We have all of our soups, lobster-salad sandwiches, things that are perfect for a food truck. We're geared up to do 80 or 100 trucks around the country, and it's only $15,000 to get a lease on a truck. Then there's synergy; franchisees can park these in front of supermarkets and give away samples and coupons. They don't have to stick to normal food-truck locations.

How are you overhauling the franchise locations?
We are looking to focus on nontraditional locations at 300 or 400 square feet, like airports, high-traffic malls, casinos--locations with a tremendous amount of traffic. We're not going to be everywhere.

One of the problems the company had was that there wasn't enough product.

It was just soup and bread. We're expanding into sandwiches and beverages. We're roughly 65 percent food and drink to 35 percent soup right now. And I created a New York theme. We have 50 New York songs--from Alicia Keys to Tony Bennett--on rotation, and photos of the city. And we have wonderful authentic food, like the 42nd Street Reuben and bagels and lox.

How has this survived 30 years without mainstream success?
What it comes down to is the product and flavor of the soup and how good it is. Al's a soup genius. He uses 27 ingredients where other people use six or seven. Without that, this company couldn't have survived all the false starts. That's why I'm excited about where we're headed now.