Big Idea: Upgrading a Key Menu Category

The soup program at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory is at the forefront of an active campaign to upgrade the quality of the choices and offer more perceived value to customers.

Traditionally, the dining department had simply purchased a series of 20 different pre-made soups and rotated them on its six-week cycle menu. However, that seemingly smooth process had a major problem: customers would deplete the soup ingredients, leaving mostly broth for those coming later. To avoid that, the dining department would regularly replenish the broth with additional vegetables, meat and noodles.

“Then we figured that if were going to doctor it anyway, why don't we just make it ourselves,” says Marvin Greenberg, JPL's general manager of dining.

The conversion process is currently underway. The department is testing various recipes and formulations developed by the cafe staffs. The managers and cooks get together regularly to evaluate the choices and tweak the recipes.

It was during one of these tasting sessions that the department found it had a diamond in the rough in its midst.

“We were doing a tasting of six or seven soups at one cafe and found that they were all superb,” Greenberg recalls. “Usually, you get one or two that you like, so we wondered, ‘Who made the soup?’”

It turned out that one of the staff cooks “is absolutely incredible on soups,” Greenberg says. “So until we get other people trained at the other cafes, we're going to utilize his talents at all the locations.”

His creations include broccoli and cheese, Thai coconut curry and a minestrone “that was just to die for,” Greenberg says.

The in-house soup recipes are now in the process of being integrated into the cycle, replacing the previous premade selections. By the end of the current cycle, Greenberg estimates half the soup selections will be in-house recipes. The cafes offer two soups a day (not counting a miso that is part of the Asian food selection at some of the locations).