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If you’ve been by Philadelphia lately you might have noticed a new smell in the air. A warm waft of goodness coming from one of the city's latest openings. It’s a hypnotic aroma, a deep hit of delicious you get from smelling just a few special ingredients in life, in this case it’s chicken stock – lots and lots of chicken stock (you know, the backbone to Nanna’s magic soup).
The wonderful whiff is emanating from the kitchen of the Rooster Soup Company, a newly opened diner-style restaurant on Sansom St that’s special for a few reasons: it’s one of the first totally non-profit restaurants to open in the city (more on that later), it was funded by over 1500 backers who invested online to help crowdfund the project, and, as noted from the nostalgia-inducing smells mentioned above, it kicks out some pretty banging soups.
Started by chef Michael Solomonov and his four partners at Federal Donuts, the Rooster Soup Company is a culmination of charity, hospitality, necessity and the bravery to try something new. First the necessity, as Solomonov explains: “We do three things at Federal Donuts. We do Donuts, of course. We do coffee and we do fried chicken.” And it’s the last one on the list that led to the idea for Rooster. “After breaking down the chickens we have a lot of byproduct; off cuts, bones, pieces of chicken – food that was being wasted.”
Looking for a way to use this byproduct led to the idea of producing soup and donating it to a charity kitchen in the city, but this quickly changed when they decided to work with Broad Street Ministry Hospitality Collaborative (BSMHC) – a place that likes to approach the idea of a soup kitchen rather differently. For starters, they don’t like to be called a ‘soup kitchen’. This is because they aim to provide the same type of hospitality, service and experience for their guests as any good restaurant. In 2016 they served more than 76,000 meals to people in need, each one given a three course offering cooked by a professional chef – and to put it rather bluntly, they didn’t need soup, they needed money.
“Instead of them standing in a line and eating from bowls of soup, they get to sit and have proper hospitality. Just donating a load of soup sort of goes against their principles so we ended up with the idea of opening a restaurant that donates all its profits to help BSMHC,” explains Solomonov. But there was one big problem, “how do you raise money for a restaurant that’s going to donate all its profit?”
Solomonov admits they were a little unsure about crowdfunding, but knew that if it worked, it would prove the idea was something the local community really wanted. And this is exactly what it did: over 1587 strangers linked arms to make the restaurant a reality, raising $179,380 and catalysing a project that would struggle to gain traction with most traditional investors.
So now, every few days at Federal Donuts – located on the same street as the restaurant – the team breakdown and boil off huge pans of umami rich stock which becomes the foundation for much of the menu at Rooster Soup Company. It’s not in everything, they have some solid sandwiches and classic breakfast dishes, but the chicken pot pie and many soups, including the smoked matzo ball, are created off the back of this byproduct stock. They say they’re currently breaking down about 500 pounds of chicken a week – around 700 whole chickens.
Many of the original investors, who all have their name on the wall, have also become customers, while many of the BSMHC workers are now also regulars. Mike says “it’s about keeping the circle of hospitality” going, and that “people like the idea of buying a meal knowing they are helping to pay for someone else to eat.”
BSMHC founder, Rev. Bill Golderer, says the idea is a “radical concept” offering a creative solution that “demonstrates the transformative power of hospitality.” For Solomonov, who says the move also allows him to now buy better quality, whole chickens, it’s a no brainer.
The chicken or the egg? An age old question that’s sparked argument and debate for years, but in the case of the Rooster Soup Company, there really is no denying which came first.