In late August, the Campbell Soup Co. made an announcement that was heard loud and clear throughout the retail foodservice industry. The company is getting out of the fresh business.

According to a new strategic plan, the company is planning to divest its Campbell Fresh business unit, along with its Campbell International unit.

Is that a sign of turbulent times to come for fresh soup sales, or just an indication that the playing field is about to get more competitive? Probably the latter, according to John Becker, senior director of marketing for Sandridge Food Corporation.

“I think it will have little effect,” Becker says. “There are some great fresh soup manufacturers in the market today. I’m sure we will all be vying for additional volume.”

The data backs up the thought that soup sales are strong. Nielsen’s latest numbers say that soup sales, buoyed by strong action in the Central region, were up 6 percent across the nation.

Meanwhile, the Panera At Home line of soups — from St. Louis-based restaurant chain Panera — became the first soup brand in the refrigerated category to reach the $100 million mark. That 2017 total represents a 27-percent increase over 2016, according to market research firm IRI.

 “Consumers are gravitating towards the perimeter of grocery stores, looking for food with our cafe-fresh taste, made with real ingredients,” says Mike Bufano, Panera at Home’s senior vice president and general manager. “Across categories, Panera at Home delivers on this consumer need for food that is not only 100 percent clean, but convenient and craveable too.”

The Panera at Home includes about 100 products in several categories, including more than 15 soup varieties. Broccoli Cheddar is the company’s top soup seller. 

Those on the supplier side are also seeing an increased focus on soups.

“We are receiving more and more inquiries for a wide range of portions from small single deli type servings to larger bulk fillings,” says Sean Devenish, business development manager for the food division of Unifiller Systems, which supplies depositing systems to soup manufacturers and more. “Customers are continually requiring more versatility from their production equipment in that they need the capability to portion soups with large particulate sizes which often requires agitation to ensure that particulates and inclusions remain suspended and evenly distributed as far as particulates and liquid ratios are concerned.”

Sandridge also recently opened an expanded soup cooking facility in an effort to position itself for current and future growth. The facility added European style cooking vessels to expand operational and culinary capabilities. Whether braising, sautéing or pureeing, the correct vessel can be matched with the product.

A healthy option

The health-related benefits of soup have only garnered more attention from consumers as they continue to put an emphasis on ingredient labels and perceived healthfulness.

Grains and other functional foods as ingredients continue to drive product development, says Becker.

“Soups are a great category to introduce on-trend ingredients,” he says. “And gluten-free continues to drive demand. Beans and vegetables help with functionality, but the challenge with soup has historically been the sodium levels.”

It’s easy to remove salt, Becker says, but it’s much harder to remove that salt and retail the desired flavor at the same time. That has been a recent emphasis at Sandridge.

“Our innovation team is constantly working on this balance,” Becker says. “It’s really about the flavor first.”

Sandridge also recently received its organic certification for soups, an effort Becker says is geared toward customers who have a greater need for the category.

New trends

Intriguing flavors are everywhere in fresh soup offerings.

Blount Fine Foods recently added a new Beef Pho Bowl, as well as a King Crab Chowder. The company, which produces Panera’s branded retail soups, also rolled out a Vegetarian Minestrone and Southwest Corn Chowder for the restaurant’s brand.

The company also highlighted its hot to-go offerings on this year’s show circuit, a response to supermarket hot bars becoming more competitive with foodservice.

Sandridge, meanwhile, has shifted some of its focus to younger shoppers, who oftentimes stray away from more traditional soup flavors.

“Traditional shoppers still exist, but new flavors of soups address millennial demands, whether through more global flavors like Thai Ginger Carrot or Espresso Black Bean, or through superfood ingredients like our Chicken Quinoa and Kale or Sweet Potato Kale,” Becker says.

Fresh soup shoppers typically put a higher importance on taste as opposed to center-store soup shoppers, Becker says. Most fresh shoppers have a much shorter usage window and expect a dynamic product.

“Consistent, great-tasting menus are paramount,” he says. “Consumers expect to get great tasting products every day.  We’ve had good success with operators who offer a base menu of flavors available every day, but also offer some daily specials to create some excitement.”

Chili bars have also started to become popular, Becker says, and Sandridge offers several flavors to offer variety. “Fresh soup is a complement to hot bars, not a competitor,” he says. “And don’t think those kettles are just for soup. Our White Macaroni and Cheese makes a great option in the soup well.”

On the supplier side, Unifiller recently launched its Servo Multi XL heavy-duty soup depositing unit. It has the capability of portioning soups up to 18 ounces per serving with larger meat and vegetable particulates. The previous weight limitations were a maximum of seven ounces and a maximum particulate size no large than a half-inch in diameter.