Soup for the Community SoulCOVID-19 #SmallBizSpotlight | A Brooklyn creative studio is connecting restaurants, diners, and wine shops over the classic comfort food. Published: March 23, 2021
Programming note: This article is part of a weekly column on small businesses in New York during COVID-19. To get #SmallBizSpotlight articles straight to your inbox, sign up here. You'll receive one email every Tuesday afternoon. Thanks for reading!
I am sending love and strength to Asian and AAPI communities across the country. What happened last week in Georgia is yet another episode in a hideous upward trend of anti-Asian violence and racism. If, like myself and many others, you are troubled by the mainstream media response, I suggest turning to Roxane Gay. Her words — bluntly outraged, deeply reflective, and grounded in rigorous reportage — are at once a salve and a call to action. Dozens of donation and education resources are already circulating; since this column is dedicated to uplifting small businesses, here’s my one emphatic CTA: Support your local Asian-owned businesses!
This week’s feature is Soup Shop, a soup pop-up hosted at wine shops throughout Brooklyn and Queens. Conceived by Ken Farmer, founder of Greenpoint creative studio Wild Dogs International, the initiative connects local restaurants, wine shops, and the Park Slope bakery Nick + Sons to bring customers a weekly soup-and-starch combo for $25, with the majority of proceeds going to the restaurants (Soup Shop takes a small cut to cover operations). I’ve picked up soup for the past two weeks, and I’m happy to report that 1) they are delicious, and 2) ordering from Soup Shop is an infinitely more fun and engaging experience than ordering from Seamless.
Though next week is the final pop-up for this season, Farmer plans to produce similar food-centric community projects in the future. Keep reading for our conversation, and sign up here for the finale special on April 1st: a chili cook-off between Ursula (which I profiled in January), Hunky Dory, Mission, and Woldy Kusina.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How does your background in creative production inform your approach to Soup Shop?
I don't have a background in the food industry specifically … I run a studio that works with artists to do different site-specific projects. Over the years, some of the projects we've done [at the studio] fell into the category of “immersive experience,” and oftentimes that can become a very plastic type of thing and [feed into] this obsession around the selfie opportunity. In the midst of all that, I have become increasingly interested in the potential of food as a means of a more authentic immersion and cultural exchange and simply the beautiful power of eating as this full sensory experience. I've been looking at how we can do more things with food as a way that brings people together.
What inspired you to create Soup Shop?
Soup Shop [came from] recognizing the tough time that everyone is having, and especially the challenges that restaurants are facing. That ties into a broader perception of the transformation of urban environments, which is pronounced in New York City, where we're losing more and more brick and mortar businesses. And through that, restaurants become even more of an essential hearth environment where we come together to celebrate and to have special occasions and to fall in love with our city and ourselves. All of these things together motivated me to want to do something to create a space of optimism and positivity that people can look forward to each week, and also do something that helps restaurants in these challenging times because they're so near and dear to the city.
Of course there's the “chicken soup for the soul” notion, but there's a reality to that in the sense that soup is something that transcends culinary trends. Almost every cuisine has some form of soup in it. It's also a labor of love: the time spent making the dish is as important as any other aspect. In COVID, our notions of time have changed in terms of the way we value it … And especially in New York where it's this rat race environment, what does this stillness mean? And more and more, you're seeing people cook at home. When we've been through these unfortunate circumstances, and given this luxury of additional time in a way, people are turning to more intimate relationships with their food.
Food is not seamless.
What are your intentions for the Chef’s Picks feature, where the chef of the week picks a film, album, and book to accompany their soup?
With the distance of not being able to go to restaurants, we wanted to look at how the program could allow you to be closer to chefs than you would when you're sitting in a restaurant. The relationship between chef and customer becomes increasingly important as restaurants are struggling to persevere through this. Food is not seamless. It's not this thing that you order and it shows up. It's people busting their asses in a kitchen to give you something that's nourishing. So we're celebrating that.
Soup Shop is not just uplifting community restaurants, it's also connecting people to their local wine shops. How do you conceive of the relationship between the two businesses?
Everything is an ecosystem: the planet and food systems and the business environment of a neighborhood. And COVID has exposed new challenges [to that ecosystem]. You think of food and wine as very intertwined, but in this unexpected moment, wine stores have been flourishing. They've also struggled — I don't want to say that everything's peachy, but they've been able to fare a bit better than restaurants have, for the most part. So we’re looking at how there's a synergy that could arise between those two [businesses], which are already partners, to help each other. And then also, if you're like me, you often go into your wine store and say, "I'm looking for wine for dinner tonight ... I don't know what I'm going to make, maybe it's going to be pasta,” and they do their best. But it's cool to have a situation where the wine store knows, okay, it's [soup from] For All Things Good, a Mexican restaurant that’s doing a pozole with these flavors. Perhaps there's this Mexican wine maker they want to showcase that they think is going to fit well [with the meal]. That ability to create spaces of discovery is through people working together.
Your restaurant partners bring a diversity of culinary influences, including Middle Eastern, Indian, Mexican, and West African traditions; was that intentional?
It ties back to one of the earlier statements I made about food as a bridge or an inroad into cultural exchange. I’m interested in how soup can translate through different international cuisines. There's obviously going to be some shared ingredients, and then there's going to be completely unique ingredients. Tanoreen has this signature Middle Eastern spice that they use in all of their soups; For All Things Good is using hoja santa; Adda is showcasing unique Indian flavors … [Giving] customers this weekly exposure to different types of restaurants and different types of food is integral.
Nick + Sons Bakery has provided bread to accompany the soups almost every week; how did that partnership come about?
Nick has a really fun story. He had a successful career as a photographer, mostly in the fashion space, and then he was traveling in Iceland and encountered sourdough bread that blew his mind, and he said to his wife, "I want to learn how to make bread like this." And his wife said, "Why don't you go in there and ask them for a job?" So he did an apprenticeship in Iceland for a while and came back and transitioned into opening [his own] bakery. The bakery is my neighborhood bakery. There's lines out the door every day. It's just one example of this beautiful small business and the entrepreneurial creative spirit that is the heart and soul of New York. So I wanted to really lean into him. While the program is engaging restaurants for just one week at a time, Nick is someone we've worked with for a number of the weeks. He’s a key partner in the process.
Do the wine stores get a percentage of sales, or is their involvement more of an awareness play?
The wine stores do wine pairings each week, so they get sales through that. But they're doing it out of support for the cause and the community. The majority of the sales are going to the restaurants. We take a very, very small percentage for our overall operation, but it's definitely not a profitable endeavor for us. It's something that we're doing as a cause-based initiative given everything that's going on in the world.
What is the ideal experience you’re imagining when someone picks up from Soup Shop?
The process of eating can become utilitarian. One thing we’re hoping to create is anticipation, where there’s this build-up during the week for people as they’re learning about a new restaurant. Perhaps they've learned about the culture and vibe of that restaurant through the Chef’s Picks, and then they pick up their soup. If they're interested in wine, hopefully they get a wine pairing to complete the experience. The soup is a 32-ounce [jar] that can be a meal for two people when you have the bread. It could be a starter for three, or a meal if you add one more thing. You could even [serve it as] an appetizer cup. The hope is that it's shared.
How do you see Soup Shop evolving over the next few months?
We are wrapping up this season with a chili cook-off for April 1st [pickups]. After that, we'll take a break and look at what other kinds of possibilities may occur in the future, both directly as Soup Shop but also as other culinary projects that embody similar ideas of food, culture, cause, and community.
How to help:
- Place your order for the chili cook-off finale (pickups April 1st)
- Support Soup Shop’s mutual aid partners: The Connected Chef, Chilis on Wheels, and ROAR (Restaurants Organizing, Advocating, and Rebuilding)
- Follow on IG
Until next time,