Steve and Jennifer Sarver with their cousin and investor Michael Rubenstein (right) at the opening of the San Francisco Soup Company in 1999. (Photo/Courtesy Steve Sarver)
Steve and Jennifer Sarver with their cousin and investor Michael Rubenstein (right) at the opening of the San Francisco Soup Company in 1999. (Photo/Courtesy Steve Sarver)

A ladle of this, a ladle of that: Soup company pivots to pickup and donating

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Food coverage is supported by a generous donation from Susan and Moses Libitzky.

Restaurateurs Steve and Jennifer Sarver never imagined that toilet paper would someday be among their biggest sellers.

Like all small business owners, they see themselves as businesspeople first and foremost, and immediately knew they needed to adapt their model to stay afloat until their restaurants could open to the public again. Even if it means selling toilet paper alongside their regular menu at Ladle & Leaf.

“We’re entrepreneurs,” said Steve Sarver. “We started in ‘99 with an idea, and we built our business, and what we built isn’t able to operate right now, so we need to be innovative. We’ll have to see where this leads us.”

The Sarvers started the San Francisco Soup Company in 1999. “There were not very many healthy food options at the time in downtown San Francisco, and we decided soup would do well with the temperate climate and that international soups would appeal to the office workers,” said Jennifer.

But what made them think about soup in the first place? They were loosely inspired by the famous “Soup Nazi” episode on “Seinfeld.”

They opened their first location in the Crocker Galleria and the business grew from there. At one point the Sarvers were operating 20 locations; today there are a dozen, most in the city, with two in the East Bay, one at the airport and one on the Peninsula, where they live.

The chain has always offered a number of soups that rotate with the seasons. But one constant has always been Grandma Mary’s Chicken Soup. It’s named for Steve’s Jewish grandmother Miriam, who went by Mary.

“She wasn’t a very good cook, but she did two things well, and one of those things was her chicken soup,” he said. He believes the broth is so good because it has parsnips and celery root in it rather than regular celery, and is seasoned with plenty of dill.

Grandma Mary’s soup has remained on the daily menu, and matzah balls are made on Fridays and during Passover.

About seven years ago, one location added a salad bar, but customers seeking out salads didn’t think to look at a place called “Soup Company.” After a marketing test and renaming the business Ladle & Leaf, the salads became a hit.

At the start of the pandemic, there were 13 locations in operation with 200 employees, all in places with a high concentration of office workers or students.

“Suddenly stopping was shocking to everyone,” said Steve. “It was devastating to our employees.”

Even though most of the business was takeout, Jennifer added, “we tried to open some of our locations, but we had to close them down.”

With no one nearby to patronize their restaurants, the labor costs to open were higher than sales. They quickly adjusted to a pickup and delivery model, serving customers on the Peninsula, in Marin and S.F., and also started selling things like yeast and flour, and grocery boxes with produce, milk and eggs, face masks and latex gloves.

Steve said the Jewish community is among their biggest supporters. The Sarvers have connections with Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame and Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo, so their Jewish network is strong.

“The Jewish community has really been there for us during this time,” said Steve.

When you make an order on their site, there is an option to make a $10 donation that will pay for two servings of soup, which are delivered to St. Anthony’s or JFCS programs feeding the hungry. (During Passover they delivered matzah ball soup to homebound seniors.)

Over 2,000 meals have been delivered to food programs since the pandemic started, with at least 500 paid for by customer donations.

Word has gotten out. “If anyone asks us for food, we give it to them without question,” said Steve. “One woman heard about it and came to our central kitchen [in San Francisco] where we make everything. We loaded up her van with food to bring it back to her community in Bayview.”

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."