More than a decade ago, Al Yeganeh, a surly New York City soup seller, gained fame when he inspired a character on the hit sitcom Seinfeld. Now, the notorious chef _ known for yelling at some customers, refusing to serve others _ is taking his own show on the road. Later this year, the real-life "Soup Nazi" will begin selling his bisques, chowders and gumbos at franchised locations throughout the country, but with one missing ingredient: Yeganeh is adamant that franchisees don't use the term "Soup Nazi" in their promotional materials.
In fact, he doesn't want his simmering soup empire to have any overt association with the show that made him famous. Tie-ins with Seinfeld will be "strongly discouraged" among franchisees, the company says.
For all the attention and business that the Seinfeld publicity has brought him, Yeganeh is hardly grateful _ in fact he says he loathes the show's star. He refers to Jerry Seinfeld as "Jerry the Clown," and insists that it was he who helped make Seinfeld what he is today. The source of the friction is the nickname that the show made famous, the "Soup Nazi," which he says is offensive.
Yeganeh, who counts everyone from entertainment mogul Barry Diller to 60 Minutes grouch Andy Rooney among his regular customers, is a fixture in New York City. Soup Kitchen International, his 20-year-old cramped storefront shop, has a higher Zagat's rating than some of the city's top restaurants. During the six months of the year it is open, lines snake around the block.
Now, the chef and his new management team are aiming to have those same soups available at some 1,000 locations in the United States within five to seven years. The idea, he says, grew more out of passion for food than a taste for profits. "I don't need the money," he says, eyes widening slightly. "I'm already rich. I was rich before Seinfeld."
Tens of thousands of people try to franchise business concepts every year, but the soup venture promises to be one of the more unusual. Yeganeh, operating under a partnership agreement, has already begun to put his quirky stamp on the business. At his insistence, for example, the form letters sent out to prospective franchisees were stripped of niceties such as "dear," "thank you" and "we look forward to speaking with you soon."
Yeganeh, who has jet-black hair and a stolid expression etched onto his face, says he has been approached many times before by would-be business partners. But they all made the same fatal mistake, telling him: "Just give us your name and we'll do the rest."
According to the terms of the partnership, franchisees will each have to pay $30,000 for the right to sell Yeganeh's soup, plus 5 percent of their annual gross sales as royalties. As for Yeganeh, he receives a 20 percent stake in the franchise business, and stands to make up to $5-million in royalties if the growth targets are reached. Most importantly for the soup maestro, he will have total control over the soupmaking.
"He's a total character and characters sell," says John Bello, chairman and acting CEO of the new venture, also called Soup Kitchen International. Bello founded the company that makes SoBe teas and juices, South Beach Beverage Co., which he sold to PepsiCo Inc. for $370-million in 2001. Bello is among 15 investors who have put "at least six figures" into the company, he says.
Most franchise locations, which have not been announced, will be in malls, airports and other high-traffic locations. The new business is also in talks with several supermarket chains, including Giant Food Stores, which has more than 260 outlets in six states, to carry Yeganeh's soups in a pouch in the deli section. The soups, both at the franchised outlets and in supermarkets, will be sold under the name "The Original Soup Man," and adorned with an image of Yeganeh's face.
Yet some franchising experts say depriving the new franchisees of perhaps their best marketing hook may well complicate their business challenge. "This gentleman is not going to be in the soup business, he is going to be in the marketing business," says Daniel Murphy, president of the Growth Coach, a Cincinnati company that offers small-business coaching services in more than 50 markets in the United States and Canada. "He is going to need to provide the franchisees with the marketing skills so they can sell the soup."
Yeganeh makes for something of an unorthodox pitchman. He doesn't believe much in traditional marketing, arguing that the quality of his 30-plus soups, from beef barley to seafood gumbo to black bean, speaks for itself. Customer service is another issue. For the uninitiated, he has a low tolerance for anything that slows down the soup line: not having ready cash, failing to move to the "extreme left" after ordering and small talk. (Yeganeh says he has no plans to insist that franchisees adopt his same militaristic style.)
So far, the company has yet to do any formal marketing or advertising. A small two-word poster on the door of Yeganeh's shop announcing the expansion ("Now Franchising") has already created a buzz among potential franchisees. Yeganeh has received 250 e-mails from people eager to sell his soup in cities as disparate as Ashville, N.C., Roseville, Calif., and Boston. Several have indicated a willingness to invest up to a quarter million dollars in the idea.
"We love the show," says Sureet Sandhu, who zipped off an e-mail to Yeganeh after his wife told him about the fictional Seinfeld character's expansion plan. Sandhu, a 28-year-old network administrator for the National Institutes of Health, hopes to buy a franchise or two with his father and a few friends. Despite his fondness for the TV hit, the marketing ban doesn't diminish his interest.
All the soup will be made at a single plant in Piscataway, N.J., and then shipped to the franchisees. They will reheat and sell it for between $12 and $20 a quart, depending on the soup and the location. (That's cheaper than his New York prices: At his Manhattan store, the seafood soup sells for $30 a quart.)
Yeganeh isn't the only likeness of a Seinfeld character that has tried to try to spin off a new business. Kenny Kramer, the basis for Jerry's frenetic neighbor Cosmo Kramer, offers a half-day bus tour of various New York City locations that appear in the show. John O'Hurley, the actor who played the catalog retailer J. Peterman, is now an investor in the real J. Peterman. Part of his role involves helping to market the company's products, such as sunglasses and men's cologne.
For the past month, the soup master has been waking up at his Manhattan apartment in the wee hours of the morning to commute to the New Jersey plant, where he is refining his recipes and getting the production crew up to snuff. When he first arrived at the plant, he noticed that employees worked with the radio on, and sometimes stepped away to take cell-phone calls. He quickly put an end to that, banning every activity other than soupmaking. He even snipped the speaker wire in two just to make his point.
Despite his intimidating public persona, Yeganeh can be quite personable outside of work _ just as long as you don't ask him about something other than soup. He refuses to provide any biographical information, like where he was born or how old he is. And those who operate in Yeganeh's business orbit, fearful of angering the talent, are careful not to let any of those details slip. "My profession should be the subject," says Yeganeh. "Leave the rest to the tabloids."
All soup franchisees will have to pass muster with Yeganeh, who says he will be looking for people who know something about food and hygiene and who are "passionate about soup quality."
"I don't want microbiologists, but they have to be well-qualified to handle my baby," he says.
Call him the "Soup Nazi" at your own risk: Al Yeganeh, in front of his modest New York shop Soup Kitchen International, is keeping tight control over plans to sell his famous soups throughout the country. But that's not really surprising, is it?