Soop owner Marc Kelly serves comfort food daily. Photos: Sarah Henry

As mid-life crises go, Marc Kelly’s was a pretty productive one — with a little spice thrown in for good measure.

Seeking change after a 20-year career in the fruit and vegetable export business, Kelly was keen to open a food joint of his own. Something modest and manageable, a takeaway place that satisfied his culinary aspirations and cravings.

That’s how Soop, one of the original anchor businesses in the Gourmet Ghetto’s Epicurious Garden, came about.

Kelly, a self-taught chef, determined that soup was an unexplored market niche in the edible landscape. He sensed an opportunity. Six years into serving up soup every day, Kelly’s enthusiasm for the comfort food he sells is still apparent.

He has a loyal band of regulars — Kelly sees them coming and knows which ladle to reach for. And his years of global travel inform what he sells: every culture has a soup tradition and on the road he learned the universal language of soup.

The slip of a to-go shack — just 500 square feet — turns out eight to 10 flavors a day, and sells a couple of hundred gallons of soup a week. Some, like Chicken Noodle, Thai Red Lentil with Coconut, and Green, are so popular they’re always on the menu. Others, like Yellow Split Pea are featured once a week; still other varieties make it into the mix as seasonality and whim dictates.

Soop, which caters to vegans, vegetarians, and omnivores, also stocks pasta sauce and chili. And, coming soon: salads like quinoa, lentil, and iceberg wedge with blue cheese, in the cold cabinet next to the storefront. Much of the produce Kelly purchases is organic and comes from Berkeley Bowl, and all soups are made from scratch.

Kelly, 53, who lives with his wife in Montclair, talked about his simmering small business this week to a group of chowhounds on the weekly Edible Excursions tour and, afterwards, to Berkeleyside.

What is it about soup that resonates with customers?

Soup was one of the first cooked foods invented — we know from history that cavemen made it. I think there’s this collective memory going back generations about the satisfaction that soup can bring. People come into the store, sample something, and find themselves transported to another place or time. We see and hear it all the time. That’s been a fun and surprising byproduct of the business.

What’s the origin of the store’s name?

Soop is an early English spelling of the word for “soup” found in Robert May’s The Accomplished Cook, one of the first cookbooks published, in 17th-century England. We chose the simplicity of this original spelling because we wanted to return soup to its roots as a nourishing meal, uncompromised by processing and packaging, and made flavorful through slow cooking.

Where do you find inspiration for your recipes?

I’m a big fan of Mark Bittman, I’ve been reading him since his The Minimalist column days for The New York Times. I like the simplicity he brings to his food; it’s something we also strive for here. I get ideas from my travels — the Avgolemeno Soup we serve every Wednesday — a chicken, egg, and lemon recipe — is a staple in Greece.

Soop cook Yadina Sirrano spices up a batch of Thai Red Lentil Soup

And there’s no way I could open a restaurant without an homage to my Swedish mother, which is why Yellow Split Pea Soup is on the menu every Thursday, as it was in my house growing up. It’s also on the school lunch menu in Sweden, a throwback to when the country was Catholic and served a rich, hearty, nourishing soup with just a little ham for flavor that would tide farmers over through the Friday fast.

My staff share ideas too: every culture has a version of chicken soup and every country has traditional soup dishes as part of their heritage. We were testing our Red Lentil Soup — with traditional Thai flavors like coconut milk and lemongrass — and one of our former cooks Salalinee Ekchit, who is Thai, helped us develop the recipe.

How has the recession impacted business?

Ironically it’s been really good to us. We’ve always offered a decent price point for the quality of food we offer. Sometimes that’s been a challenge on our end, financially speaking. But when the economic crisis hit, a lot of people downsized to us. We picked up business that in more prosperous times might go to a sit-down restaurant. Personally, I also think that when times are lean and hungry, people seek out a comfort food like soup for psychological reasons, without even realizing it.

Red Lentil Soup: in demand with new moms

Do you have any favorite customer stories?

One woman came in wanting to know if she could freeze some Chicken Soup and send it FedEx to her ailing aunt for delivery the next day. We assured her it was doable and so she did. Her aunt called and said: “Where did you find a soup just like Nana used to make?”

Another time a man came in early and asked if the Red Lentil Soup was ready. It was, but we weren’t open yet. He told me his wife had just delivered a baby, after a grueling 36-hour labor I later learned, and she couldn’t eat the hospital food — all she wanted was our Red Lentil Soup. Well, of course I couldn’t charge the guy after that. We got him soup to go and a few weeks later they came back to thank us and show off the baby.

Since we’ve been here six years I’ve watched babies who were nourished on our Green Soup in utero grow up and come in and order it themselves.

What about well-known clientèle?

Well, Michael Pollan, Alice Waters, and Robert Reich have all been in at one time or another. But another Alice — Alice Walker  — had been a regular for some time before I realized who she was. One day she came in and she mentioned she’d just traveled to Iceland, which I thought was cool. And the next day a friend of hers came in and let on that she had been in Iceland accepting the LennonOno Grant for Peace award, in the same year that Michael Pollan was among the four honored. So I like to say that, in 2010, 50% of the award winners for that prize were our customers.

Can you point to any differences from your old life to your new one?

When I worked in produce export I used to joke that on any given day I could be on the phone to Australia, Asia or the Middle East, and I could land in a produce market in Singapore and bump into friends. But, back home, I could walk down the street to the coffee shop and nobody knew me. Here, my world is so small, just a few blocks really, but we all know each other. There’s a great neighborhood feel.

Are there any myths about soup you’d like to see debunked?

Yes, that soup is only a cold-weather, winter dish. Many countries in South-East Asia, Central America, and Africa have a long tradition of eating hot soup during very warm weather. That’s something that takes some people a while to get their head around here. In hot weather we sell a Watermelon Gazpacho and an Avocado and Cucumber Gazpacho, but we serve warm soups then too.

Where do you like to eat around town?

My wife and I are fans of Rivoli and Corso; we’ve always had really good food prepared well with excellent service at both places. We enjoy the liveliness at Corso. We got engaged at Lalime’s [in Albany], so that remains another favorite; it’s also a place that cooks great food served by a  knowledgeable staff. We like to order a lot of small plates to share and pair them with different wines; we’re hardly low maintenance, but they accommodate us. And I had a good breakfast recently at Venus, an Indian-spiced egg dish that was memorable.

Sarah Henry is the voice behind Lettuce Eat Kale. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Produce for the people at Berkeley Bowl [03.18.11]
Alice Waters, Robert Reich talk up a delicious revolution [11.07.11]
Michael Pollan: New food rules, but no need to be neurotic [11.02.11]
The culinary couple behind Berkeley’s Rivoli and Corso [05.27.11]
Amy Murray: Venus, and now Revival [06.11.10]

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