My Trip to the Soup Nazi


Yesterday I went downtown to east lunch at Al Yeganeh's Original Soupman Restaurant. Mr. Yeganeh is the real-life inspiration for the Soup Nazi from Seinfeld. For those not familiar with the Soup Nazi, the makes fantastic soup but enforces draconian punishments on people violating the rules of his line. This includes kicking people out of line for a moment's hesitation in ordering, after that person has just waited 45 minutes for soup. I've tried going down there a couple of times before, but he's been closed; apparently he goes to Argentina for the Summer. This time I was going to get my soup.

Something happened on the subway ride down that doesn't happen on BART. I stepped into the car and found myself in the middle of a mariachi band serenading the car in the hopes of getting donations. I had to smile at the delightful incongruity o fit. What an odd city.

I eventually got down to the Soup Nazi's new location at 42nd Street just off 5th Avenue, across the street from the New York Public Library. Al Yeganeh wasn't there. At least, he wasn't out front. Apparently he's gotten a big corporate financier and is trying to turn his restaurant into a national franchise. This 42nd Street location is the cornerstone of his new Soup Empire. He's also got a new corporate manager, who handles the business side of things.

As such, the store's lost a lot of its authenticity. It used to be a standard Midtown hole-in-the-wall lunch place, little more than a counter with a cash register. Now it's bright and cheery. They serve the same soups, but also have a salad bar and sell pannini sandwiches. There are TVs showing video clips about food (and a generous number of puff-pieces about and interviews with Al Yageneh). You're served by a friendly crew clad in Soupman uniforms (inspired by McDonald's uniforms, by the way, not S.S. uniforms, in case you were wondering). There are signs with the Soup Nazi's rules posted, along with things like "My rules must be followed 101%, not 99%!"

But it's all a show. If you break the rules, somebody might eventually tap your shoulder and give you a friendly reminder. Nobody gets kicked out of line, everyone gets their soup. The authoritarianism is strictly for show, a kitschy wall decoration like they put up in T.G.I. Friday's.

I'm sure this is standard management operating procedure. You can't create bad will by kicking customers out. But you can market the whole Soup Nazi thing to bring in customers.

I don't like it, and I don't like it for two reasons. First, the middle-class liberal well-intentioned ephemeral reason: They've taken something quirky and unique and turned it into something standardized and corporate. But I have a more practical objection. Al Yeganeh didn't make the rules because he was evil. You know what the rules are? 1. Have your order ready when you reach the register. 2. Have your cash out and ready to hand to the cashier when you order. 3. After ordering, walk to the far left to receive your order and get out of the way of the next customer. Nothing unreasonable, all designed to keep the line moving, because Yeganeh gets a big line. More stores should have such rules. The only difference between Yeganeh and others is that Yeganeh strictly enforces his rules, while most places just give gentle reminders. So the upshot of lax enforcement at the new Soup Nazi's place is that people ignore the rules. They fish for their cash, they flounder at the register deciding what to order, they start conversations with the cashier, and it slows the line way down. These aren't hard rules to follow, and they're just polite. Not enforcing them rewards jerks at the expense of people who can follow simple instructions.

So how was the food? Really good. Amazing. I had the butternut squash soup (the only one that had plausible deniability for veganism. All the other vegetarian soups had cheese in the name) and it was exquisite. Rich and creamy and perfectly seasoned. The soup came with sesame bread and a pear, which were both quite good, and I say that as someone who really doesn't like pears. So regardless of the corporatization, the food quality doesn't seem to have suffered. So that's good, at least.


Why did you need a soup that was vegan?

Because it's contagious!

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This page contains a single entry by Zach published on November 8, 2005 4:44 PM.

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