It is 10:45 on a brisk Wednesday morning and the Soup Up Bethesda team is readying themselves for the afternoon lunch rush. With the cold weather upon us, Soup Up Bethesda, which opened to the public on October 27, 2015, serves patrons eager to find healthy options for lunch and dinner.
Highly anticipated since news of its opening was announced in May 2015, the first-of-its-kind soup bar, which occupies the first floor of Bethesda’s PeriPoint Building located at the intersection of Wilson Lane and Old Georgetown and Arlington roads, provides a dizzying array of homemade and distinctive soups, salads, spring rolls, cornbread and natural juices. Soups such as Breakfast in Bed, Cashew Chickpea with Shiitake Mushroom, Fresh Herb Roasted Chicken w/ Roasted Corn; Curried Chicken with Basmati Rice, Lasagna Soup, Chili Fiesta, Chicken & Dumplings, Red Lentil Medley, Jamaican-style Stewed Beef w/ Vegetables, and Bone Broth are just a few of its popular entrees.
Donna Henry, who owns Soup Up Bethesda, has been selling soups at Washington, DC’s Union Market since 2012. While she boasts more than 150 different soups, the soup bar’s daily menu typically features six soups — all made with locally grown vegetables, herbs and spices and without additives, preservatives, dairy, butter, oil or added salt. Vegan, non-vegan and gluten-free soups combine American Spanish, Asian, Caribbean, and Mediterranean cuisines.
The Washington Sun (WS) recently sat down for a candid discussion with Henry at her soup bar in Bethesda. The following is an excerpt of the interview.
WS: Why did you decide to start a soup company?
DH: It’s not an overly glamorous story. I was not fiercely ill and a bowl of soup brought me back to health; neither did I attend a top culinary arts school. I just love creating soups that’s all. I believe that, done the right way, soups are nutritious and are a palatable way to get all your nutrients from one pot. Soups are also a great way to satisfy the hungry palate and are an amazing comfort food. I found that great-tasting, healthy, low-sodium soups — not laden with heavy cream and syrup — were not readily available to the public and I wanted to fill that void.
WS: Soups are also social —
DH: Absolutely…Enjoying a bowl of healthful soup is a great way to bring friends and family together. Growing up, I watched the women in my family in Jamaica make the most amazing soups and fed and sustained a whole family and sometimes people from the neighborhood. Eating these soups filled our stomachs while simultaneously brought people together.
WS: So you’ve coined the term, soup bar. What is that concept about?
DH: On the surface, it seems to be as unique concept, but really it isn’t. Whether called a tavern, pub, or salon, “bars” or the concept of bars have always played an important role in people’s lives in the States as well as in Europe. For one, it is a place where people can meet, socialize and talk about anything. Remember Cheers? Viewers loved the show because they could virtually be at the bar and be a part of a larger conversation and larger community, and share a laugh, a secret, or daily musings, even in the comfort of their homes. The concept of bars serve many functions – be it to relax, let your hair down, disconnect, reconnect, or simply to connect. The PeriPoint Building, which is where our soup bar is housed, by virtue of its location, visibility, and uniqueness lends itself to such atmosphere. Instead of alcohol and hard liquor served by a bartender, our focus is serving delicious healthy one-of-a-kind soups…and not to overextend the analogy, but the bartender is replaced by a “soupinista.”
WS: You made the transition from a soup stand at a farmer’s market to a brick and mortar in a short space of time, why?
DH: A wonderful opportunity presented itself in the form of architect Michael Belisle and his wife and an artist, Elyse Harrison, both who had been loyal customers of Soup Up DC. I did not want to look back years from now and say to myself, ‘you know Donna, you should’ve taken advantage of that opportunity.’ Further, many of my clients at Union Market are residents, business owners, and employees in the Bethesda, Chevy Chase and northwest DC areas. Too often they would ask, ‘do you have another location? And so, I’d like to say that the people of Bethesda invited me to be here.
WS: And how has it been going?
DH: Great. As with most ventures in life, there is always room for improvement. We are working feverishly to fix a few kinks and refine some of our original ideas and plans. Our ultimate goal is to provide top-notch service and amazingly delicious healthy food to accommodate our clients.
WS: Your menu is very small compared to many of the restaurants out there. Do you see it as an advantage or a disadvantage?
DH: Oh it’s a huge advantage. We are a specialty store, whose product is healthful, delicious soups. Much time and care goes into every item on the menu. We aim for quality over quantity. Small space. Small menu. Big impact. This is what our customers are craving.
WS: This is a great time to be opening a soup bar. It’s winter and the flu season is upon us. Was this strategically planned?
DH: No… not really. Many people seem to associate soups with the cold weather, which I find very interesting. We all eat hot meals every day during both the winter and summer seasons. Our body needs the sustenance. Soups get stereotyped, I believe. Another tendency is to associate soups as remedy when someone is ill. Again, I find that to be interesting because if soups are viewed as remedy for healing, why not consider soups a preventative measure? Our soups are delicious meals that can, and should, be enjoyed every day. If there is a planned strategy, that would be it.
WS: How many soups do you cook every day?
DH: We serve six soups daily at our Bethesda location. At our DC location, we serve four soups. We always have vegan, non-vegan and gluten-free options available for our clients.
WS: What’s the most unique soup that you offer at Soup Up?
DH: Wow… you know all of our soups are unique. Why? Because we do not use dairy, butter, oil, or added salt in our soups – which is not the norm with many soups on the market. Our chilled soups are distinct. We make sweet and savory gazpachos. Our Thai Tropic, made with fresh mangoes, herbs and spices, are amazing. The taste of our Spicy Watermelon is simply unexpected. And our Minty Mellon is fresh and soothing. A hot soup like our Cashew Chickpea with Shiitake Mushroom is unique as is our Breakfast in Bed and our Non-Dairy Cream of Roasted Pumpkin with Roasted Apples and Pears. We don’t do the standard chicken noodle soup; instead, we create a Fresh Herb Roasted Chicken Soup with Roasted Corn. In short, we make ordinary soups extraordinary.
WS: Why are soups so good for the body and soul?
DH: Because as complex as they can be to make – done the right way, soups offer a palatable way to consume a variety of vegetables and superfoods that are necessary for our health. And when you feel and are healthy, the effects ripple. So yes… soups – especially those made here at Soup Up – are definitely good for the body and the soul.
WS: And they super healthy–
DH: Absolutely. We only use fresh ingredients in our soups. We believe in the “from-the-farm-to-the-table” concept. Again, we use no dairy, butter, oil, or added salt in our soups and this does not compromise the taste and flavor of our soups. You won’t feel dehydrated or bloated after having our soups. You won’t be hungry in an hour, two, or even three after having a bowl of our hearty soups. Our soups are meals — healthy meals in a bowl.
WS: Juicing has been the latest health and wellness trend…Are you introducing the Washington, DC area, a new trend of “Souping?”
DH: Ha! I’m told that souping is actually the new trend on the West Coast. However, I don’t think it has caught on here in the Nation’s Capitol as yet…but I sure hope it does.
WS: What’s next for Soup Up?
DH: The sky is the limit. My goal is to exceed expectation and continue to serve amazingly delicious soups to soup lovers in the Washington, DC metropolitan area.
WS: Well good luck to you and thank you for talking to us!
DH: Thank you!
Visit www.soupup.us for more information, including daily menu.