I don't know about you, but I'm cold. The colder the weather gets, the more my mind drifts to soup. As I said, I bought The Soupbox Cookbook for my mother-in-law for Christmas. It was kind of a selfish move seeing as she always comes into town and fills my freezer with delicious dishes. So far we've tried the Bayou Chicken & Sausage Gumbo and it was spectacular. I can't wait to try the rest.
I thought since many of you are also thinking of soup, what better person to interview than Dru Melton of The Soupbox in Chicago? After all, he knows soup better than any of us.
How did Soupbox get started?
In June of 1995 Jamie Taerbaum decided to open a storefront called Icebox, where he could serve his new concoction, Icyfruit—an Italian ice-like product made fresh each day right in the store with water and fresh fruit. Soupbox came along later when we were trying to figure out how to pay the bills during the cold months. Someone said ‘what about soup?’ and the rest is history!
What’s the most popular soup at Soupbox?
Our two signature soups: Creamy Chicken & Wild Rice and our Lobster Bisque. These two soups outsell all others by a 3 to 1 margin (and even outsell some of our other offerings 10 or 20 to 1!)
What’s your favorite soup to make?
My current favorite soup would probably be the Spicy Mayan Chicken Enchilada because it’s cold now in Chicago and I love the spice and warmth that soup delivers. I also really enjoy making Italian Wedding as it’s an unusual but delicious thing to behold.
What advice would you give to someone passionate about food and thinking about getting into the industry?
Hmm—these questions are always difficult. When I think back to when we first started, most people told us we were crazy and that we’d be out of business in three months! The only advice I’d give anyone interested in getting into food service would be simple:
1. Be ready and willing to work your ass off. No joke.
2. Treat your people (staff, vendors, bankers, every person you come across) with respect.
3. Go out of your way to enjoy yourself in anything and everything you do. If you don’t like what you’re currently doing, go find something better to do. Life’s too short.
How do you come up with your recipes?
I’m inspired by all manner of things: comforting recipes from my mother and grandmothers when I was little, new ingredients that come to market, TV chefs and their shows, new places I visit (in person and on the internet!), dishes I have while out at other restaurants—inspiration is everywhere if you’re looking.
What is (or who is) your biggest food inspiration?
My biggest influence and inspiration for all things food related would be my mother and grandmother. After that, probably chefs on TV.
Walk me through an average day at the Soupbox.
Get to the store, early (6-7am). Start prep and get staff in and working on prep. Once the staff is in and we’re well under way, I peel off and start our financials: daily reports, counting drawers, verifying the change box, sending our sales to accounting, preparing the daily report for Jamie, reviewing the inventory report and checking it against in-house inventory to be sure it's accurate, using the morning inventory to prep the order sheets for the day. Then I check the day’s catering and delivery orders and start calling prep for those items, then I go through our books and schedule what, if anything, needs to be paid that day or that week, then I double check our bank to see what checks have been cashed and which haven't, then I look over the schedule to see how payroll is coming in for the pay period and the month, then I go back out front to make sure we’re on target for open and catering/delivery. It’s now about 10 am. The last hour before we open goes fast: making sure everything is done and prepped on time to be ready for the people who start lining up outside around 10:45am. The rest of the day is spent keeping the boat pointed in the right direction and catching any balls that get dropped.
Management is a lot more than telling staff what to do. I take out trash, do dishes, answer phones, make soup, help customers, fetch more change, kick bums out of the bathroom, handle complaints, and any other thing that might be needed during the course of a day. Until about 4 or 5 pm that is, when I switch out with the night crew and head home.
Are there any tips/tricks you can offer for creating the perfect bowl of soup?
1. Use good ingredients.
2. Taste your soup along the way—make adjustments as necessary.
3. Too salty? Add a peeled potato and cook till fork-tender. The potato will leech some of the salt out of the finished dish.
Do you shop farmers' market or grocery store isle?
I shop everywhere. We go to the restaurant markets downtown for meat and produce, and have great relationships with our vendors who supply our dry and pantry items. For my own household I shop everywhere; Jewel/Dominicks/Costco/farmers' markets/Whole Paycheck (oops Whole Foods), etc. At my house we are blessed to know local farmers who bring us meat and eggs. We get produce from farmers' markets and grocery stores, and we buy pantry and dry goods from big box retailers. Whenever possible we get fresh local foods, but we don’t turn our nose up at anything.
What’s the strangest ingredient you've used in your soups?
Turtle, abalone, tripe, duck feet, squid ink, blood—you name it. If there’s an odd or tough ingredient out there, someone in history has submerged it in liquid and cooked it, usually for hours on end. It also probably tasted pretty great.
The Soupbox restaurant soups have received outstanding Yelp reviews, were voted the Best Soup in Chicago on Citysearch, and have been featured in local and national press and television, including the Chicago Sun Times and on Rachael Ray’s Tasty Travels show. The Soupbox Cookbook, authored by the chef and founders of the restaurant, features both creative and traditional soups, stews, and chowders from customer favorites to great new recipes to try.
All the soups are wholesome and nourishing for the whole family, and most of them take as little as 15 minutes of prep time. Try the Rosemary Chicken Dumpling Soup for a new twist on a traditional favorite, or the Magnificent Mushroom and Barley Soup, light and healthy, yet satisfying and packed with Vitamin B. Readers will also find Latin and Asian flavors adapted to become new family favorites, including the Spicy Mayan Chicken Enchilada Fiesta.
The book, like the restaurant, features multiple vegan, gluten-free, and low-sodium options, showing a commitment to the health needs of its broad range of customers…and now readers. The Soupbox first opened in 1995 and features 12 different soups a day, with a rotating list of hundreds. A selection of customer favorites as well as new soups developed for this book—125 great soup recipes in total—have been created by founders and authors Jamie Taerbaum and Dru Melton, who have more than 35 years restaurant experience between them.