Our soup 'speakeasy'

April 29, 2017


It started out innocently enough.

"Let's sell some soup to make a little money to start the café." A few of us had met in the fall of 2016 to share our ideas about visions for a restaurant that served patrons regardless of their ability to pay. In those earlier days we were thinking about buying mixed pattered bowls and trendy décor, like a tobacco basket for the mantel and a farm table.

So we made up an order form and decided upon cheesy broccoli soup. We pre-sold 24 pints and I went shopping. Broccoli crowns were on sale for 99 cents a bunch at Aldi, and I filled the cart with 5 large bunches of crowns, carrots, onions, chicken broth and block cheddar, half 'n half, and milk. It was a recipe I found that was to be a Panera knock-off. Commence cooking in my small kitchen. I have never made 24 pints of soup before. This scale concerned me because we wanted to assure we could provide a delicious, healthy soup -- in volume. It was why we kept the soup sales just to word of mouth... so we could control the number of orders and not be overwhelmed.

I started with the chicken broth in a stock pot and began adding shredded carrots and a handful of minced fresh onions. When those were soft I added the milk and broccoli, trying to get the flavors to begin to blend and also trying to grow the volume, stirring, stirring. I was working first off the stock pot, then moving the base into the roaster as the vegetables cooked. In an hour, I could smell the aroma...

But is wasn't the smell of a hearty warm lunch at Panera; it was.. Was it? Yes! The smell of burning milk. I remember as a girl making homemade vanilla cornstarch pudding. I often would have a burnt coating of milk on the pan bottom. I dumped the full stock pot into the roaster and there it was, all black and bubbling and smoking, a burnt coating and about to start permeating into the soup! I put the smoky stock pot out on the porch.

I texted Kate, one of our group members.

What did I get myself into? What was I thinking to start with a cream-based soup?!

In true Kate, her return reply was full of encouragement. I plodded along.

The 18-quart roaster was the saving grace. It continued to cook the soup at the higher temperature I needed to soften the broccoli. It was about two-thirds full. I shredded all the cheese in: 5 pounds. I started running the math in my head again and double-checked my cups to pints and pints to quarts conversions. Was I going to be short? Oh, the people waiting for soup tomorrow! Was this enough? And it's not thickening up!

Now at this point, you should know that my brain has a big red light that flashes ALERT when things aren't going well. It was then that the ALERT light started to flash. That ALERT light triggers what is called the common-sense override button. My CPU then typically sends a digital ticker tape of warnings out on my brain dashboard, such as BAIL! or RUN! or FAKE AN INJURY! And in this particular situation: GO BUY VELVEETA!

I sent Bob to the store for the biggest block of Velveeta he could find and three more bags of frozen broccoli. In the anxious interim, fueled by the 11 p.m. hour, I grew panicky over the size of the broccoli florets currently in the soup. I got out my blender and just began scooping out blender-fuls of soup and hitting the puree button and then dumping them back in the roaster. On Bob's return I microwaved the bagged broccoli and cubed the Velveeta. The broccoli was two different colors of green. Stirring, stirring until the Velveeta was gone.

That first batch of soup went that way. I will tell you: it was delicious. You now have my recipe. But I do not want to know how many calories worth of cheese and cream were in there. And I do not want to think about "processed cheesefood." Ah! I am better than Velveeta! Know this is not who we are!

But that's how we started. We made $40 on that first batch of broccoli cheddar. The last-minute grocery run was a $15 hit to our bottom line. But it was seed money for our next batch. We carefully tested doubling volumes on subsequent orders, letting the word out just a bit more each time. We always had repeat customers from that first sale. It was a secret soup society those first few months. Our speakeasy. We are so thankful to the many people who embraced our concept, and everyone who was willing to sell and deliver soup, and for those generous souls who without question gave us money and donations of cash and soup ingredients to support what wasn't much more than a vision at that time.

It's funny though how the concept logistics have grown, and priorities in getting the café started have risen to the top of our NEED list. The more than $500 we have raised in soup sales and donations so far has paid for our membership with the One World Everybody Eats foundation and will fund one of us to become certified as SafeServ as required in Pennsylvania.

We still have not bought our mismatched soup bowls or café décor yet. But we can't wait to!



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