If there’s a more engaging way to spend a chilly, rainy October afternoon than sitting among steaming pots of gourmet soup in conversation with one of Cincinnati’s most fascinating food entrepreneurs, I’m hard pressed to say what that could be.
Suzy DeYoung, a professional chef with a remarkable legacy of experience and family history — her father, Pierre Adrian, was head chef at Cincinnati’s famous Maisonette when it began its uninterrupted 41-year run as a five-star restaurant — left a shining career in catering to open La Soupe, a roadside, carry-out “soup shack” in the suburb of Newtown, featuring a mouth-watering menu of seasonal soups, sandwiches, and salads.
But La Soupe isn’t just another entry in Cincinnati’s growing artisan restaurant scene. It’s a for-profit social enterprise with a philanthropic mission: for every quart of soup sold, DeYoung donates one bowl to those in need, via agencies and food banks who serve the hungry.
To put it another way: every soup purchase made by you and me — whether a humble, therapeutic broth, or the crazy-good Fire Roasted Tomato, Bacon, Lettuce, and Blue Cheese (my personal favorite) — means someone in need will have a hearty, nourishing meal coming to them.
As if soup didn’t already make you feel good, this positively warms the soul.
Sales are precisely tracked, and at the turn of the week, DeYoung and her crew cook up large batches of soup for the next week’s donations. La Soupe has standing partnerships with local agencies, such as Inner City Youth Opportunities, Our Daily Bread, the Drop Inn Center, CAIN Ministries, and St. Peter Claver, along with a slew of special projects, including a recent event at the Ronald McDonald House.
Just six months since opening, her outreach is most impressive: La Soupe donated 55 gallons in October alone, translating to meals for over 550 people.
Those are numbers every soup-lovin’ citizen can get behind.
The idea for La Soupe had been growing for years. Despite the success DeYoung enjoyed in catering, she was ready for something new, and that one thought persisted. “Wouldn’t it be nice to cook for the people who just need to eat?” DeYoung said, explaining her philanthropic vision. “If someone took the care to cook for people who just need good, solid food, and it’s fresh and nutritious and it’s real, would they, you know, just feel even better that somebody cares about them?”
The sentiment has struck a resounding chord in the community.
One of DeYoung’s customers, a woman undergoing cancer treatment, recently came in to use a gift certificate she had been given in her Chemo-Unity bag (Chemo-Unity is a Cincinnati non-profit that distributes bags of thoughtful supplies that provide comforting support during chemotherapy).
With her order of one of La Soupe’s organic, therapeutic broths in hand, she commented to DeYoung, “You know the best part of this — and don’t take it the wrong way — but it’s not really about the soup: it’s how it makes me feel. I’ve relied on everybody else since I’ve been diagnosed with cancer to do everything for me. I’m the usually the giver, so I’m not used to receiving, and that’s been very hard for me. When I get your soup, at least I know I’m still giving back.”
The impact here is worth emphasizing: when you walk out of La Soupe clutching your quart of White Chicken Chili (another excellent choice, perfectly seasoned with a side of tortilla strips that adds a satisfying crunch to the whole works), your purchase today means someone who really needs a nourishing meal will be enjoying soup next week. And that soup will have been hand-made with fresh ingredients by a group of people who care deeply about the effort from start to finish.
That’s the kind of one-to-one effect that makes helping our neighbors in this way so satisfying. Writing a check is a noble thing, but the more hands-on the giving effort is, the more meaningful it is to everyone involved.
The outbound soup donation side of the restaurant isn’t the only notable part of her business model, however. In addition to five or six regular soups, her seasonal menu is dictated by incoming donations of produce that would otherwise be wasted. At a time when Americans are throwing away more food than ever before — accounting for an astonishing 1/5th of the country’s total garbage output [source] — La Soupe makes it a priority to conserve, use, and sustain, partnering with local grocers to receive their rotated-out produce.
DeYoung does weekly pick-ups from Pipkin’s Market in Blue Ash, and Kroger in Madeira helps keep her larder stocked with soup staples, such as potatoes and onions, which have to be replaced at an accelerated rate due to the store’s nearly 24/7 bath of fluorescent lighting (a source of rapid over-ripening). A small, on-site herb and lettuce garden planted by friends keeps her supplied with fresh greens in season. Local farmers generously donate extras from their fields, and home gardeners are happy to find a home for the overload of ripened-all-at-once crops like zucchini, peppers and end-of-the-season tomatoes.
The unpredictable nature of these incoming donations makes good use of DeYoung’s professional palate: a recent abundance of Swiss chard led to the creation of her Moroccan Vegetable Stew with garbanzos and ginger, which topped the weekly menu board on a recent visit.
And nothing goes to waste.
DeYoung’s many years of professional kitchen experience means all ingredients are handled, processed, and stored with maximum efficiency. Vegetable scraps are given to a neighborhood farmer and regular donator, who adds them to his compost pile, creating a full, sustainable circle of giving: produce is donated -> soup is created -> happy customers buy soup -> community members in need get a nourishing meal -> vegetable scraps are returned to the earth.
Going forward, DeYoung hopes to broaden her partnerships with organizations that serve children — a keen interest for her — and has a project with Oyler School in Price Hill in the works for next year.
One strategy for long-term fiscal health that DeYoung hopes to kick off soon is a corporate subscription program. A company would contract with La Soupe to provide a selection of ready-to-eat soups that are placed in the break room or cafeteria. At the end of the month, purchases are tallied, and La Soupe donates to the charity of the company’s choice.
And if a company wanted to choose a local school struggling with a high rate of childhood hunger — such as Oyler — all the better.
DeYoung is “hellbent on making this work. I’m giving it 110%.”
She is also in a unique position to be the leader of a sort of knowledge franchise for this kind of enterprise: as she’s progressed through each stage of her business, she’s accumulated a road map for duplicating it. If, say, a fellow chef wanted to create her own La Soupe on the other side of town, DeYoung can share the nitty gritty: what produce donations one can expect for each season; what recipes sell well; how to manage and prepare extra large donations of, say, potatoes; how to structure agency relationships, etc.
If any person can make this particular social enterprise model flourish, it’s Chef Suzy. She speaks so passionately and thoughtfully about the business, its progress and extraordinary potential that, ten minutes into the conversation, you’re ready to toss everything aside and declare, “I’m in. How can I help?” She exudes enthusiasm and compassion, and wears her very full heart on her sleeve.
So, of all the foods of the world, why soup?
“Soup is a connection, that’s what I’ve always said,” comments DeYoung, “It needs to be shared. It comforts on like 10 different levels, not just one or two.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself.