SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — In The Maine Mall’s bustling food court, Kamasouptra sticks out like a sore, independent thumb.
Named after the ancient Indian treatise on sensuality, the Portland soup company is doing its best to arouse your palate.
“For a while soup got a bad rap,” said Mike Jerome, who runs the retail and wholesale food business with his two siblings. “Soup can be sexy.”
From beef goulash, to grilled cheese and tomato, to roasted red pepper and gouda, this is not your grandmother’s broth. They have a dozen soups in their playbook — “nine that everybody loves and three specials,” said Jerome.
Many, such as curried root vegetable and lentil, are healthy. Starting with a coconut milk base, executive chef Drew Kinney adds celery root, parsnips, turnips, yellow curry, coriander and cinnamon.
“Similar to Indian food in Britain,” said Jerome.
The most popular soup — sweet potato corn chowder — has only a thimble full of cream in each serving.
“Our goal is to make Maine the soup capital of the world,” said Jerome, a Scotland native and graduate of Texas Culinary Academy in Austin who worked in the hospitality industry and moved to Portland to escape the heat.
Then came the winter and an idea.
While working at Portland Pie Co. as a manager, Jerome discerned a culinary void.
“I realized there was a gap in the market. Soup features on nearly everyone’s menu, but if you work in a kitchen, soup is never anyone’s focus,” he said in a faint Scottish brogue. “Everyone’s done their prep for the evening, someone comes on and says, ‘Who’s going to make the soup?’ No one wants to make the soup.”
So he stepped in.
Jerome and his friend Kinney, who was working at The Grill Room & Bar, rented a commercial kitchen in Monument Square and started to experiment.
They created a veggie chili and worked their way through 200 soups before settling on nine standards. Since then business has been on a rapid boil.
“Maine is such a great place to sell soup. Our revenue has doubled every year since we began,” said Joe Jerome, the company’s chief financial officer.
Offering creative soups made with care, love and locally sourced ingredients are a few reasons. Another is soup’s staying power.
“It’s been around forever. Soup is not a fad,” said Mike.
The flavors take a while to marry, but seconds to serve. “We are the fastest food. You don’t have to wait for a sandwich to be made,” said Mike.
And that speaks to today’s on-the-go consumers who are not cooking as much at home. “They want to eat out but they want to eat healthy,” he said.
They can find Kamasouptra at Bard Coffee and East End Cupcakes in Portland and Giacomo’s in downtown Bangor, for example. The average-size bowl costs $5.60.
Kamasouptra has stayed on the move, graduating from selling five gallons of veggie chili a week to pumping out 750 gallons sold from Ogunquit to Kingfield. In March they relocated their production operations from Yarmouth to a 3,000-square-foot commercial kitchen in Eliot.
And they are not done yet.
The team of 30-somethings — including Joe and Mike’s sister Sarah Jerome — plan to open a new cafe in Freeport or Brunswick this year. Boston is next.
“Boston would open a whole new wholesale market for us,” said Mike, who at 32 is keen to see his Sebago beer and cheddar and Italian white bean and kale soups sipped up and down the coast.
Starting the year off with brisk sales and the help of a polar vortex, Kamasouptra seems to be in the right place at the right time.
This month they landed their first school account at the University of Southern Maine.
Located in the Woodbury Campus Center in Portland, Kamasouptra is strengthening a growing local food court that includes Coffee By Design and Portland Pie Co. Chris Kinney, general manager at Aramark, who oversees the school’s dining services, was enthusiastic about the addition.
“Students appreciate and know that the soup is made by Maine people. It’s a Maine business success story,” said Kinney.
Though Aramark chefs make chowder, chili, and vegan soups and stews, “on a college campus people are eating multiple times a week, so changing it up is important,” said Kinney.
Plus, the buy-local movement is strong on campus. Students request less food miles on their plates and gravitate to brands they know. “Some people make their choices on what they want to purchase based on whether it’s local. There is a comfortability piece too,” he said.
As the company reaches its fifth year of business they are more comfortable with success. But they are not resting on their ladles.
“We are getting better at it,” Mike said. “Everything takes time. Opening up our first retail store took two years to be perfect. We don’t have all the answers.”