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Soup's On!

It started with the Soup Nazi. Now it's one of America's hottest restaurant concepts.

Summers in New York are usually hot and steamy. But for once, this winter is expected to be hot and steamy, too--in the soup restaurant business, that is. During the past two years, a host of newcomers to the restaurant business have been racing to make soup "the next big thing." Their motto: "We want to be the next Starbucks." Yeah, well, who doesn't? The thing is, one of these folks just might do it.

The self-proclaimed leader of the pack is Daily Soup, with eight locations in New York City and another 10 expected to open on the East Coast early next year. "We always had multiple locations in mind when we started this," says Bob Spiegel, 36, who--along with partners Carla Ruben, 35, and Peter Siegel, 29--opened the first Daily Soup in November 1995.

That same month, something fortuitous occurred. A Thursday night "Must-See TV" lineup included a "Seinfeld" episode featuring a soup vendor who served up caustic curses with his cups of steamy ambrosia, earning him the moniker "Soup Nazi." That single episode, loosely based on Al Yeganeh, a real New York City soup seller for more than a decade, left Yeganeh stewing but inspired several wannabe "soupreneurs."

"The Seinfeld show was a major impetus for the expansion of the soup restaurant market," says Andrew Schnipper, co-owner of Hale & Hearty Soups, who says his soup business was already underway when the show aired. Now, with four New York City locations, he says, "If that show hadn't aired, we'd be one of the only ones selling soup."

With a concept for a soup business already in the works, Pak Melwani, 48, says the Seinfeld show was serendipitous. In what he calls a "spoof of a spoof," Melwani and co-founders Kumar Hathiramani, 38, and Surinder Aggarwal, 49, opened the doors at Soup Nutsy in 1996, featuring a caricature of a soup chef on its menus and serving up attitude with the dishes. The restaurant is no spoof now. In fact, it has attracted the interest of franchising investors like Boston Chicken Inc. founder George Naddaff, and plans are in the works to franchise the concept.

Entrepreneurs interested in getting into the market had better hustle while it's still young. And you'd better know how to fly by the seat of your pants. Interested in industry failure rates? Costs of doing business? You won't have luck researching the soup restaurant market. It's so new, the National Restaurant Association has yet to come up with any statistics on the industry.

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This article was originally published in the November 1997 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Soup's On!.

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