By Cindy Atoji Keene
M. Peter Thomson has been in the packaged consumer goods industry for decades now, first with private-label gravies, sauces, and salsas, and now with homemade style soups. But although once an iconic American pantry staple, with several winters of declining sales, the ready-to-serve soup market has become an open pot for smaller independent players like Thomson’s New England Country Soup. But it’s not just noodles and broth anymore, and even the iconic red-and-white soup label immortalized by Andy Warhol has now been retired, with the shelves laden with lines of premium, chunky, kettle, microwavable, healthy, and more. “I’ve been doing this for 39 years, and I’m still trying to write the theorem,” said Thomson, whose latest offering is all-natural, low-sodium soups in such down-home flavors as Lentil, Chicken Corn Chowder, and Yankee White Bean.
Packaged in a flexible and environmentally friendly ready-to-heat pouch, New England Country Soup is positioning itself as yet another New England Company that is an innovator in social leadership and eco-product marketing, along the lines of Stonyfield Farm and Ben & Jerry’s. But although New England Country Soup uses family recipes and seeks out ingredients from family-owned producers, it’s doubtful Nana would recognize the state-of-the-art technology behind the soups. “You would be absolutely amazed how much science goes into the packaging, manufacturing, and even recipes,” said Thomson, who said that once spices are tweaked, then “we get serious and translate the formula into mass production. I have a good sense of what will happen to Cayenne pepper after it’s cooked or thermally processed, as the FDA says.”
Q: Why soup, instead of say, soap?
A: I draw the line all the way back to my grandmother, who is from a little village near Naples. In Italy, food is love, and I distinctly remember growing up learning how to make bread and fresh pasta, although at the time being male and learning to cook was a bit of a conundrum.
Q: How did you know it was time to start New England Country Soups?
A: Soup is a very emotional product for most consumers; a bowl of soup conveys warmth and love. I looked around and was none too impressed with the quality of offerings, they were so tasteless, high in sodium and low in fiber. With two dominant players on the store shelves, god protects the naïve entrepreneur, because I believe we can make a better product. We even include an “Ingredient Tracker” code on every package, where consumers can enter the code online to learn what farm, field or ocean our ingredients are sourced from.
Q: When it comes to the clam chowder, how many times did you need to play with the recipe before you got it right?
A: What is in the marketplace is the 55th version of it. It took that many iterations to get it where I wanted it.
Q: What raw material is the hardest to get suppliers for?
A: The single most difficult ingredient to source is natural frozen white cooked chicken meat with no additives. It’s amazing to me how few suppliers we can find in that specific area.
Q: Take us behind the scenes at the factory where the soup is made. What would I see?
A: The location of the plant is proprietary information, but you’d see a lot of specialized equipment working in sync to make these soups. When we are in production, we fill one 15-ounce pouch every second, or 60 pounces a minute. I take cuttings, or samples of the soup to make sure it’s on target.
Q: Why did you decide to kick the can in favor of a pouch?
A: During my travels, I’ve tried soup on every continent except South America. The American consumer’s preference for ready-to-serve soup is different from everywhere else in the world, where soup is predominately dehydrated. The pouch concept is from Asia and Europe, where packaging is technologically more advanced. Our pouch is difficult to make because of the temperature and pressure that we expose the product to make it shelf stable.
Q: What is it like to compete in such a crowded marketplace?
A: In the retail grocery business, there’s a very painful thing known as slotting, a fee manufacturers pay to go on the shelf. We don’t have a slotting budget comparable to Campbells or Progressive, so we have to work smarter and make a better product to justify our shelf space. This is not a business for the faint of heart, that’s for sure. Our marketing support is directed at in-store promotions, coupons, and floor stands. We are soon launching a one-cup trial size, which has not been done in the business before.
Q: What would nana think of your chicken soup, which you’ve named after her?
A: Unfortunately she died when I was 17, so she’s not around to try my soup, but in my office, I still have her original post-World War II aluminum pot in which she made a many of batch of soup.
Q: What’s for lunch today? Soup?
A: No, salad. Honestly, we are sampling it so often during the course of the day, that I’ll eat anything but soup please.