August 01, 2014

In Philadelphia, a Recipe for Chicken Soup and Nonprofit Revenue

Tim Moyer

Restauranteur Mike Solomov, Rev. Bill Golderer, and restauranteur Steven Cook shoot a promotional video for their Kickstarter campaign at Mr. Golderer's Broad Street Ministry.

Betty Crocker’s recipe for a winning chicken soup calls for homemade broth, plenty of veggies, and a well-partitioned bird. A couple of hip restaurateurs in Philadelphia have a more complicated ingredient list in hand that includes a minister, a successful $150,000 crowdfunding campaign, and a splash of social media.

Those are the fixings of Rooster Soup Company, a socially minded, for-profit eatery planned for the booming Center City District. All the proceeds will support the nonprofit Broad Street Hospitality Collaborative in serving hundreds of poor each week. It has drawn together an unusual cast of collaborators, not least among them a James Beard Award-winning chef.

"I would love for this to be something that people can look to as a viable model, an alternative to traditional fundraising," says Steven Cook, one half of the Philadelphia restaurant group CookNSolo, which is helping to spearhead the project.

Rooster Soup Company is intended to be every bit a foodie’s destination, and no one pretends that getting it up and running will be easy. In addition to Mr. Cook, those powering the project include CookNSolo’s Mike Solomonov and Broad Street’s founding minister, the Rev. Bill Golderer.

Still, they have already vaulted one hurdle. A 45-day, $150,000 fundraising effort on the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter brought in $179,380 from 1,587 donors by its close on July 26.

"If you have [more than] 1,200 community ambassadors who feel like this is their restaurant, you have a much higher likelihood that this thing will feel like it is part of the fabric of Philadelphia, and that is something that was really important to all of us," Mr. Golderer says.

The idea for Rooster Soup Company began taking shape in 2013 during a series of meetings between Broad Street and CookNSolo. For seven years, Mr. Golderer led staff and volunteers in what he describes as "radical hospitality," providing meals and other services to Philadelphia’s poor with a welcoming, familial touch.

But the growing number of guests has tested the capacity of the Broad Street team. A recent dinner attracted about 500 people, Mr. Golderer says. He needs a steady stream of revenue to buttress a $1.4-million annual operating budget, approximately one-third of which comes from grants and another third from individual donors.

So Mr. Golderer sought advice from leaders in Philadelphia’s hospitality industry, eventually forging a relationship with CookNSolo. Initially, Mr. Solomonov and Mr. Cook, whose holdings include a chain of popular fried-chicken-and-doughnut shops called Federal Donuts, proposed contributing excess chicken parts to Broad Street’s four-times-a-week meals.

It was a case of well-intentioned individuals being entirely unhelpful, Mr. Golderer says. He sent them back to the drawing board. They later returned with Rooster Soup Company.

"That is where the bromance between Steve, Mike and I began," Mr. Golderer says. "They are our organizational soul mates. Their culture, their values, what they are trying to bring forward in the world—everything about who they are is in deep and powerful alignment with what Broad Street is about."

The teams at Broad Street and CookNSolo activated their professional and personal networks to promote the Kickstarter campaign, which began June 11. Front and center was a desire to fuse Philadelphia’s business, arts, and social-service constituencies to create a sustainable project that could be a point of community pride, if not a model for others.

CookNSolo’s "phenomenal reputation" spurred the work along, says Wanda D. Paul, senior vice president of the Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau and an early supporter of Rooster Soup Company.

"Their culinary expertise and creativity was a perfect match for the creative and loving way Broad Street cares for and feeds the homeless," Ms. Paul says.

A Broad Street congregant and video producer shot a cheeky promotional video starring Mr. Golderer, Mr. Cook, Mr. Solomonov, and a full-body chicken costume. They offered potential donors tiered incentives, including naming rights for a doughnut at Federal Donuts for a $1,500 donation and a skydiving trip for four for a $5,000 donation. One donor who contributed at least $10,000 will enjoy a five-course meal cooked by Mr. Solomonov, who won a prestigious James Beard Award for cooking in 2011.

Story continues after video.

Former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell and Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter contributed video riffs to the mix. And there were Facebook posts, Tweets, and coverage in the local media.

"I was terrified," Mr. Cook says. "It was one of the hardest things I have ever been involved with. We felt we were in this giant race. Every second counted."

Plenty of work remains. Mr. Cook and Mr. Solomonov have identified a potential location for Rooster Soup Company but have yet to sign a lease. They will likely turn to investors to provide the remaining start-up costs, which could total about $250,000. They will also need to hire a chief operating officer and other staff for the stand-alone, for-profit business, they say. And then there is the menu. (They have already made public one possible item: a steaming bowl of soy-spiked chicken stock, short-rib pastrami, rye noodles, pickles, and soft cooked egg, which they have dubbed "pastramen.")

But momentum is on their side, Mr. Golderer and Mr. Cook say. They are planning a Rooster Soup Company pop-up location sometime in the fall. In three years, they want to see Rooster Soup Company generating $100,000 annually for Broad Street, one part of a multiyear expansion that Mr. Golderer hopes will bring the organization’s 2017 operating budget to about $3.1-million. They envision a customer base that includes professionals working in Center City, contributors to the Kickstarter campaign, and foodies on the hunt for the next great hot spot.

"The dream scenario is that when one talks about a trip to Philly, that people say you have to visit the Barnes Collection, you should probably touch the crack in the Liberty Bell, and you need to eat at Rooster Soup," Mr. Golderer says.

Send an e-mail to Megan O’Neil.