Sunday, September 3, 2017

the heat is on

According to some flowery text on their corporate website, Zoup! is — and I quote — "the leading fast-casual soup concept restaurant that is defining the category with its premium and proprietary soups and other recipes." Before yesterday, I had never heard of Zoup!, nor was I aware of a rivalry among fast-casual soup concept restaurants. Actually, I was not aware of the concept of fast-casual soup concept restaurants. 

Mrs. P came into the possession of several Best Buy gift cards and we decided to extend the purchasing power of said cards by using them in Delaware, the self-proclaimed "home of tax-free shopping." (It's on their state-line "Welcome" sign, for goodness sake!) We have done this quite a few times, choosing to make purchases of large electronics in Delaware to save a few dollars of sales tax. Delaware is just under an hour away, so it's convenient all around. 

My wife picked me up after work and we headed south on I-95, fighting southbound rush hour traffic in the process. The Best Buy that is our usual destination has become something called a "Best Buy Outlet." When we pulled into the parking lot, it was suspiciously empty. We spotted a large sign in the window noting their hours of operation had been reduced to weekends only. Brushing away annoyance, I opened up the trusty Waze® app on my phone and discovered another Best Buy a mere 1.6 miles from where we were. (Thank you, urban sprawl.) Mrs. P swung the car around and we were back on the highway.

We followed the robotic-voiced directions and were led to a large, still under-construction shopping center. The complex occupied both sides of the street. There were a few dirty construction vehicles that rested in their tracks, ready to pick up at the start of the new day. A handful of businesses were open, despite their neighbors being empty storefronts or just framed-out shells. Best Buy, big and bright, stood at the far end of a parking lot adjacent to a Raymour & Flanigan furniture store and something that looked like it will be a movie theater in a few months. We parked, went in, marveled at the giant televisions and the fact that, in the age of Netflix, they still offer DVDs for sale and looked around the appliances for... whatever Mrs. P was looking to buy.

After Mrs. Pincus spent the full value of her gift cards, we turned our attention to dinner. Even in the sparse landscape of this not-yet-complete shopping mecca, there was a small selection of restaurants from which to choose. We briefly considered Zoës Kitchen, but passed when we discovered that the minimally-Mediterranean themed eatery did not offer falafel. (Mrs. P really wanted falafel.) Instead, we opted for Zoës' next-door neighbor, Zoup! Zoup's neighbor, it should be noted, was an empty store.

We entered Zoup! and immediately thought, based on the store's configuration, that we had entered Qdoba. (We felt the same in our short visit to Zoës.) Several framed "soup-related" photographs were placed artfully at irregular intervals along the earthy-painted walls. The service area at the rear of the long, narrow setup was bustling with apron-clad hipsters conversing with prospective customers. Every fifteen or so seconds, someone behind the counter called out "Hot soup!" and the other staff members responded with same call of "Hot soup!" While we perused the menu boards mounted, one fellow, decked out in full Zoup! regalia (hat, polo shirt, apron, name badge), greeted us with one of my favorite chain restaurant greetings.

"Have you folks ever been here before?"

Hot soup! Hot soup!
We answered in the negative and he commenced in delivering a rehearsed commercial for Zoup!, as though he was reading from a TelePrompTer set up behind me. He explained about the 12 rotating soup selections and the freshest ingredients and blah blah blah blah blah. I had lost interest in what he was saying. I knew what soup was. I had eaten soup before. I didn't need someone explaining the finer points of soup to me. What was interesting — and by "interesting," I mean "totally annoying" — was during his company-touting spiel, he kept interrupting his speech by calling out his "hot soup" response when required by the company handbook  — punctuating every other sentence  — each time a new pot of broth was brought out from the hidden kitchen or another server filled a waxed cardboard cup for a customer.

My wife and I each selected a soup and sandwich special. I chose a thick tomato bisque and the missus chose a "rustic"* vegetable, which was soon revealed to be much too spicy for her liking. As its sandwich pairing, we both picked the tuna salad. We paid. The server/cashier (same guy) read our order back to us at least twice. We sat at a nearby table and waited for our dinner.

Soon, two trays laden with food were placed on the counter behind me and the first guy who greeted us announced my name as though I was being paged at the airport. (Dude! I'm sitting right here. We just spoke a minute ago and there are only four other customers in this place.) I transferred the trays to our table and we began to eat.

Almost simultaneously, Mrs. P and I bit into our sandwiches and had the same reaction. Something tasted foreign, like it had no business being in a tuna sandwich. Mrs. P was cautious, but I took another bite. Lemon! There was a distinct lemony taste. Not just understated notes, to borrow from the pretentious judges from shows on the Food Network. This flavor was as prominent as the tuna. Plus, several capers popped in my mouth on that second bite. My spouse decided it was time to call the greeter guy over. She caught his attention and he interrupted his greeting of another couple to come to our table. For some reason, he pulled up a chair from an adjoining table and made himself comfortable, a serious, customer service-focused expression across his face.

I didn't want to lead with "What's that lemony taste in my tuna?," because that would only evoke a reply of "Um, lemon, you moron," so I went another route. Instead, my wife, the more diplomatic of the two of us, inquired, more vaguely," What is that unusual flavor in the tuna?" Mr. greeter proudly stated "Lemon zest. We zest lemon in our tuna, then we add lemon juice and capers." He capped his little explanation with a forced smile. Mrs. P confirmed that the tuna wasn't accidentally hit with a shot of cleaning solution and Mr. Greeter assured us that was not the case. Then he echoed a "Hot soup!"  proclamation and started back towards the prep area.

I don't know about you, but I like tuna with mayo, maybe pickle relish, possibly celery... and that's about it. Did I mention lemons? Or capers? No, I did not. Y'know why? Because this isn't "Chopped" and those items are not included in my Round 1 Mystery Basket. This place is a re-worked Qdoba in some remote section of Christiana, Delaware. Not exactly a brasserie on Boulevard Saint-Germain in Paris.

We forced down the remainders of our sandwiches and finished our soup. Everything was, well, average. Soup is soup. Unless it's the stuff for which Oliver Twist begged a second helping, it is pretty difficult to ruin soup. The sandwiches were typical corporate versions of your local diner fare. The bread was pretty good, though.

As we walked back to our car, my wife offered her assessment, one I have heard more than once after trying someplace new. "Well, we don't have to go there again."

Maybe someday, we'll try one of the other fast-casual soup concept restaurants.

* "Rustic," I can only assume, is a well-meaning corporate descriptor that means "chunky," and not "primitive," as the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the word.

1 comment:

  1. I went to Zoup once too. I thought it was okay, but not worth repeating. I obviously didn't have the tuna.