Jan. 19 2011 12:00 AM

With choices galore, Zoup! aims to please downtown diners


"Hot soup!" hollers an employee on his way out of the kitchen; "Hot soup!" echoes the staff at the counter.

Catch Zoup! at the right time during a lunch rush and you’ll have no problem understanding all those exclamation points, as soupistas shout for steaming pots from the kitchen and a bustling crowd squeezes into a line that stretches from the counter to the door.

It’s downtown Lansing’s hottest spot for a warm meal. Zoup!, the area’s first in a family of 30 franchises, opened in early December. The original restaurant began in Southfield in 1997, and the chain has quickly spread throughout the Midwest and northeastern states.

Franchise owner Mark Rantz decided food service was his future after hitting a geriatric ceiling in the corporate world while working for a Fortune 200 company.

"You get to this point in your life when you hit 50, and things begin to change," Rantz says. "I had been told that I wasn’t any longer ’promotable.’"

So Mark and wife, Sue, a banking professional in her own right, uprooted from west Michigan and now live in a downtown loft near their franchise, which they run as a team. As Michigan State graduates (with children who have been and are Spartans), the couple feels at home.

Midlife crisis averted, for now.

"Working with my wife is fun," Rantz says. "We make a great team. You never know how that will work out, but so far so good."

The appeal of Zoup!, Rantz says, is what drew his interest as a franchise owner: quality food delivered with attention to detail.

He’s spot-on about the food. Soup is at the core, of course, and the menu is bountiful with over 100 rotating soups. Twelve are available daily, and each is prepared according to rigorous standards.

"The recipes are hand-crafted, exclusive to Zoup!," Rantz says. "People ask if the crab is real. Yes, it’s real. The lobster is real."

The spicy crab and rice is on Rantz’s favorite list, along with the roadhouse sirloin chili and the cheeseburger royale.

Catering to customers means one size doesn’t fit all. Goldilocks would have even one more choice, as soup is served in four sizes: side, cup, bowl and extra-large. On a recent Friday, prices ranged from the lobster bisque at $5.75 a cup to the vegetarian split pea at $4.65 a cup.

The chicken pot pie soup ($4.95) tastes uncannily like the real thing; it’s as if a steadyhanded chef sliced open a pot pie shell and drained the rich, comforting stew into a bowl. Chowders, bisques, étouffées, and chilis have — like the chicken pot pie — a thicker consistency. If you hanker for something thinner, there’s the Italian wedding soup ($4.95), with little turkey meatballs and mini pearls of pasta.

Salads and sandwiches options are the same every day. The Tuscan chicken ($6.35, $4.25 half) is built on tender ciabatta, generously dressed with a mild pesto sauce and layered with provolone and grilled chicken, red peppers and onions.

Sonoma salad ($6.35, $4.25 half) combines a high-quality mix of baby
greens, fresh romaine, slices of almond and cranberries, brought
together with a raspberry vinaigrette — crunchy and lively.

Zoup! culture revolves around attentiveness. Adorning the walls of the
restaurant are stenciled "Zoup!isms," such as, "Everything matters,"
"Something for everyone," and the inexplicably existential "The customer
is the customer."

A trip to Zoup! is more than pithy corporate locution, though; it’s a sensory experience. When it comes to soup, Zoup! eschews caveat emptor.

"We have all 12 soups in front of you, and we encourage you to sample one or all 12 before you decide," Rantz says.

It’s that direct interaction with customers that drives Rantz and the Zoup! brand. He
says introducing his product to inquisitive taste buds is perhaps the
greatest joy in owning a restaurant. He recently introduced Zoup! to a
band of traveling hockey players that wandered into a place they had
never heard of. They returned the next day. And Rantz fondly recalls
serving a quartet of middle-aged women — chatty, curious and searching
for something novel, akin to his own rejuvenating experience as a

"They were excited to be here, and they really wanted to check it out," Rantz says. "It was a really great exchange."