The other night, I stood beneath fluroescent lights at my local Stop & Shop, looking for a dinner that I could heat up at home. I looked through the Deli section, passing by the various canned soups and chowders. It all looked bland – pieces of food churned up by machines. I was about to head to the frozen foods aisle, when I saw a familiar face printed on a packet of Grab-n-Go soup: pursed lips, a honk nose, hawk eyes beneath a stern brow, and a crown of jet-black hair. His name is Al Yeganeh, and from the look of him you can tell he’s passionate about his soup. In 2005, he launched a restaurant chain and retail line of gourmet Heat’N’Serve soups. His company is named The Original Soup Man, but you probably know him by another alias: The Soup Nazi.
On November 2, 1995, NBC aired the 116th episode of the hit sitcom Seinfeld. The episode was titled “The Soup Nazi” after the nickname of the titular character performed by actor Larry Thomas. Thomas plays a militant soup chef, who demands that his customers follow a strict code of conduct when ordering from his hole-in-the-wall soup stand. When they fail to follow the highly regimented procedures, the Soup Nazi hands them back their money, and yells, “No Soup for You!”
The character was based on Yeganeh himself, who founded the soup shop Soup Kitchen International in 1984. Located on 259 West 55th Street in Manhattan, the kitchen quickly became notorious both for the quality of its soup and the strict rules enforced by its owner:
1. Pick the soup you want
2. Have your money ready
3. Move to the extreme left after ordering
For Yeganeh, these procedures were necessary in order to ensure the fastest and most efficient service possible. Given the amount of customers that needed to be processed, they were a necessary component of Yeganeh’s strange but effective methodology, not outrageous infringements on his patrons’ liberties.
Al’s shop closed in March 2005. Unfortunately I never had the chance to see the real thing, but I the Seinfeld show and the testimonies of many who frequented it help to imagine what it was like.
* * *
A few blocks south of Central Park, you would come upon a line. Rain or shine, it would stretch to the end of the sidewalk, perhaps twisting around the corner. You might say to yourself, “Ah, soup isn’t worth the wait,” but the line is moving fast, the soup smells good wafting around the corner, and after all, these people aren’t waiting around for nothing – this is the world renowned Al Yeganeh, the guy who gets higher Zagat ratings than most fine-dining restaurants in Manhattan. As you got closer to the stand, you would see Al performing his routine. Hunched over the register, working so fast that it’s like his fingers are programmed into the machine, flying through each transaction in five seconds or less. He could deftly scoop a ladel full of soup and unload it into a cup, each time getting just the right proportion of solid ingredients to broth without fail. Double-cupping the soup to retain warmth, he would pass the soup to his assistants, who would package it in a paper bag along with the rest of the meal.
Near the front of the line people might be exchanging bills frantically so that they would have exact change. Conversation would suddenly cut out. Al doesn’t appreciate small talk; don’t get distracted. Next up. There’d be a yellow-spray-painted diagram of an arrow pointing to two illustrated feet. That’s where Al wants you to stand after you’ve ordered.
You give your order, and move to the left. But an old woman, oblivious to the significance of this ritual, stands in your way. Now you’re too close to the register for Al to continue taking orders. He looks up, glaring. “Move to the left!” The line grows completely silent. “The far left!” You and the woman would shuffle over ashamed, cowering like prey. He would size you up one more time, and express his satisfaction by yelling, “Next!”
Finally, an assistant would pass you a brown bag. And opening it up, you would take a big whiff. “Mmmmm, Jumbalaya!”
Yeganeh’s soups were renowned for their taste, but his questionable behavior towards customers only added to his notoriety. As word spread, members of the Seinfeld cast tried the place out, and passed the word onto the show’s writers. The comedic material was already there – the character, the soup stand, the frightened customers. It was just a matter of incorporating it all into a storyline.
Of course, when they sketched out The Soup Nazi, both Larry Thomas and the writing team exaggerated Yeganeh’s behavior. They made him meaner and more volatile than he really is, thickened his accent, and crafted a story where his mistreatment of customers gets the better of him. The stakes had to be raised for TV, and subsequently they distorted the public’s perception of Soup Kitchen International. It was hard for customers, both new and old, to stand in line without thinking of Yeganeh’s mythical caricature. They wanted him to play into the character, to curse, to pound his fists, and to let them take his picture. Sometimes they would even break his rules deliberately, hoping that he would yell the infamous line: “No soup for you!”
For this, Yegenah blames Jerry Seinfeld, whom he calls, “Jerry the Clown.” He finds the “Soup Nazi” nickname insulting and forbids his customers from using the “N” word in his shop. One day, while taking a break from shooting an episode of Seinfeld, Jerry and a few of the show’s writers stopped by Soup Kitchen International for a quick bowl of soup. When Al recognized Jerry, he began an angry tirade. The episode had “ruined his life,” he said. Eventually, Al did stumbled into his scripted alter ego, screaming, “No Soup For You!” and demanding that Jerry leave the premises.
What I find so interesting about this account of their encounter is that Al, despite his efforts to distance himself from the image of himself portrayed on Seinfeld, ended up resorting to the episode’s very catchphrase. When confronted with a real life version of the events on the show, it’s as if he couldn’t resist the pull of his own characterization. This seems to be a recurring conflict figuring again and again in Yeganeh’s career. He has earned the reputation of master soup chef and inherited the status of pop culture anomaly, and it can be difficult to negotiate this dual mantel. While the fame may be tempting, it threatens to ensnare Al in a self-referential loop, and endless caricature of himself. It’s interesting to notice that the title of his franchise, “The Original Soup Man,” disavows the Soup Nazi character at the same time it references the TV show through its claim of originality. If Al can stake out a ground where he can contest the Soup Nazi, perhaps he can regain some control over how the public sees him. Faced with the media attention and the growing notoriety surrounding his fictionalized persona, Al looked to stick to his guns. He would keep making his soup. Maybe be could even harness all that force that had built up behind the Soup Nazi and redirect it back towards himself, the basis for the character.
* * *
In March of 2005, Yeganeh closed his shop. When you call Soup Kitchen International to make an order, you hear his voice, a ghost on the line: “This is Al Yeganeh, Soup Man. I’m not operating in my store on 55th St any longer. I left United States on March 11, 2005. I sold North America rights to this company by name of Original Soup Man. Any inquiry, please contact them directly: http://www.originalsoupman.com. Thank you.” From listening to this recording, it might seem like he was fleeing from something, but in actuality, Yeganeh quickly became immersed in overseeing the development of the franchise. The company was his new project and just like one of his soups, he planned to get all the ingredients just right.
To start, Yeganeh has done everything he can to involve himself in the company. What he doesn’t want is to step back and have someone tell him they’ll take care of it. During development, he’d wake up everyday in the early morning hours to drive to the soup plant in Piscataway, New Jersey, where he would test the soups and oversee the operations in the plant. When he first arrived at the plant, he took time to observe the employees at work. From a raised platform, he perched like a hawk, peering down at the activity on the floor. The workers would occasionally relax, working with the radio on or stepping out for a phone call. Disapproving, Al descended on the employees. To make his point, he walked up to the stereo and snipped the speaker wires with a pair of scissors – there would be no activity at his plant other than soupmaking!
Yeganeh had grand aspirations for the franchise: 1,000 locations in the U.S. within five to seven years. Most franchises would be in malls, airports, strip malls, and other high-traffic spots, but supermarket chains like Giant Food Stores, with over 260 locations in six states, would carry Yeganeh’s soups in pouch form. Franchises pay $30,000 for the right to sell his soup, and he’d take a 20% cut from each business. In the end, he’d be looking at making 5 million in royalties. However, Yeganeh claimed he’s not in this for the money: “I’m already rich. I was rich before Seinfeld.” Then why close your old shop to launch a multi-million dollar franchise corporation? Yeganeh would like us to simply chalk it up to his love for soup, but there’s also greater power to be exercised in developing his own product, and image, on a more massive scale.
Within the corporation, Yeganeh has exerted even tighter control over business communications, insisting that all niceties are removed from letters to prospective franchisees. No extraneous formalities like “dear,” “thank you,” or “we look forward to hearing from you soon!” are necessary; with Al, it’s strictly business.
Yeganeh does not enforce his rigid service style onto the franchisees themselves, but he does screen each potential location owner to ensure that they know about food and hygiene and are “passionate about soup quality.” Most importantly for Yeganeh however, is that his franchise owners do not attempt to play up the Soup Nazi image. Once again, he has forbidden the utterance of the “N” word and any other reference to the Seinfeld episode.
Some of the company’s investors and officials don’t share Yeganeh’s line of thinking; they see the connection with the Seinfeld episode as a marketing tool and potential source of revenue. “He’s a total character and characters sell,” said the chairman and acting CEO of the new venture, John Bello, who has also thrown six figures into the company. Of course, this is precisely what Yeganeh is trying to resist. He doesn’t want to be a character. There’s a sense that he’s trying to recapture his image by launching this franchise – a self-made man, a real soup chef. He will no longer be the Soup Nazi toiling away in the small soup stand as depicted in the Seinfeld episode. For Al, corporate success on his own terms means that he will have finally conquered the Soup Nazi. The quality of his soup will win out over the notoriety of his image.
The franchise is now in its fourth year, and has never gotten off the ground and mobilized into the nationwide empire Yeganeh thought it would be. Of the forty franchises that were opened in the first two years, almost half have closed, citing high prices and poor company support as the major reasons they failed. These may just be the growing pains of a franchise restaurant trying to get underway, but with four years gone since its inception, perhaps its time for The Original SoupMan to swallow his pride and break out the marketing tricks. A reminder of the Soup Nazi, might give customers that extra push to spend a few dollars more than they’re accustomed, just to get a taste of the pop culture legend.
* * *
Meanwhile, the factory in Piscataway is still pumping out soups, shipped in packet form, with Al’s face stamped on the packaging. They arrive at supermarkets like my local Stop & Shop, and are shelved in the deli section one by one, where they sit under fluorescent lights, waiting for a consumer like me, to come by and consider the available options. What kind of message is the Original Soup Man trying to plant in my head? What does he want me to think?
Perhaps I’m not meant to think anything at all. The Original SoupMan “sets the standard” so this must be the best soup on the shelf. There’s factory assurance to make sure there’s no room for error or variation. The soup fulfills its own formula, and the end product is my guaranteed satisfaction. All that’s left to be done is for me to grab one and move on to the freezer aisle. But when I stood in the deli section aisle that night, something brought this formula to a halt. I couldn’t help but think that the face on that packet of soup looked familiar. His stern face, proudly and defiantly standing for his soup creation, seemed to remind me of a character I’d seen on TV. “I wonder who that is,” I thought.I stood there for a bit longer, contemplating the half-formed thought hung on my mind, but finally dismissed it, walking to the freezer aisle for a Tombstone Pizza instead.
On 259 West 55th Street in Manhattan, sits a Patel newsstand. There used to be a soup stand there. People would stand in the rain, waiting for a steaming cup, double-cupped to retain the warmth. You could see Al there, toiling away, flying through orders, barking at his assistants, ladeling soup like a madman, passion and excitement flaming in his eyes. Now you can see his face printed on a soup packet on a shelf at your local grocer. “Nothing else compares.”
This article was originally written in Spring 2009.
Relevant Source Material:
“About Us: Company History.” 2005. Original Soup Man. http://www.originalsoupman.com 1 Mar 2009.
Arment, Marco. “Al’s Soup Kitchen International.” Marco.org 4 Mar 2009. http://articles.marco.org/23
Caruso, David B. “Soup Nazi Furor: Stock Market Crash.” 13 September 2007. New York Post. 6 Mar 2009. http://www.nypost.com/seven/09132007/news/nationalnews/soup_nazi_furor.htm
Sander, Ernest. “About Us: Company History.” Business Opportunities Journal. 13 Mar 2009 <http://www.boj.com/articles/franchise/soup_nazi.htm>.
“Seinfeld: The Soup Nazi.” 2009. TV.com http://www.tv.com/the-soup-nazi/episode/235. March 3 2009.