For soup chef Ken Kaplan, winter is when it's hot. Summer, on the other hand, brings a chill.
Kaplan, owner of The NY Soup Exchange, a Garden City restaurant, sees his sales spike just after Labor Day -- or, as he said, as soon as women stop wearing white. After all, he said, soup is the ultimate comfort food for the chilly months of fall and winter.
So it's no surprise that once the weather warms up, soup sales start to slow down. Kaplan's problem? Customers don't seem to realize The NY Soup Exchange doesn't sell just soup. The menu includes burgers, wraps, salads, chicken wings and smoothies. Kaplan said sales slow by 40 percent in the summer, making his business "beholden to a commodity that doesn't really define me."
That's why, even though Kaplan built his brand on soup, he said he thinks a new name and new look might draw customers who would bypass a soup shop in shorts weather. He's hoping a reboot might help him attract an evening crowd, too.
Change with connection
A name change can be risky, said Dean Small, founder and managing partner of Synergy Restaurant Consultants, a California firm specializing in start-ups and turning around struggling brands.
"You have the risk of people saying 'You've changed! I liked you when you were a certain way,' " Small said. If a re-branding "is not well thought-out, then there's disconnect between the brand, the decor and the menu, and people don't make an emotional connection," he said.
Kaplan opened The NY Soup Exchange in 1998 and has won awards for his soups. He sells soups wholesale to other specialty shops on Long Island. The last four digits of the cafe's phone number spell "SOUP." In high season, Kaplan said, he serves 50 to 60 gallons of soup a day. The business, he said, brings in six figures a year in sales.
Indeed, the soup is what drew George Leppard, who works nearby, to the five-table restaurant for the first time last week. "I'm a fan of soups, and I had a craving," Leppard said, after tasting several options and settling on the Caribbean crab bisque and the New England clam chowder.
Small advises restaurant owners looking to make over their images to avoid "running away" from their core products. Even so, he said, "Sometimes you need to evolve your brand."
Early next year Kaplan plans to seek about $20,000 in financing to renovate and re-brand. Ideally, he said, he'll open with a new identity in February, "when there's a little money in my pocket" from the winter rush. The timing, he said, will give customers time to get used to the new name and new look before the slow season starts.
Balancing old and new
Kaplan said he wants to balance a name that's not too soup-specific with something that makes it clear that he serves food. He hesitates to shorten the name to The Exchange, because he's worried that people won't know it's a restaurant. He plans to run an informal focus group among his friends to help pick a new name.
As for the new look, he's limited by his 11.5-foot-wide space. He expects to keep the wall of mirrors because it makes the restaurant look bigger, and he thinks he'll keep the existing, "clean-cut" look. But he intends to replace the tables, chairs, lighting, awning and counter.
As for the menu, Kaplan doesn't anticipate changing much. In fact, he will keep the name NY Soup Exchange on soup menu boards and labels on to-go soup containers.
"To change a name could be giving up tenure, longevity and reputation," he said. Still, "I've been doing things for a long time the same way. I think it's time for a fresh start."