Austin American-Statesman Article 2003

Kitty Crider's "scoop" on The Soup Peddler in early 2003...


A Bicycle Built For Soup

By Kitty Crider

Even in a city where eclectic street sights are common, David Ansel draws a second glance. There he is, pedaling up a “hill of death” atop his homemade yellow bike, pulling a large, loaded blue Igloo cooler bungee-corded to a trailer.

The cooler’s contents are also a surprise – bright orange Sichuan carrot soup, 15 gallons of it, neatly packaged in two-quart recyclable plastic tubs.

Ansel is the Soup Peddler.

He’s a former techie who followed a girl to Austin four years ago. That relationship did not last. But he fell in love with the city, eventually trading programming for yoga. Unable to support himself teaching yoga, he looked to soup for sustenance, stirring up a big batch and offering it to his friends: “Here’s the deal. I’m out of money. I’m going to bring you some soup on my bike.”

And so Savory Soul Sustenance, a soup subscription service, was born. It’s a simple plan, but not an insignificant amount of work. Ansel is just one guy – “the Soup Jew,” he calls himself, not the Soup Nazi of “Seinfeld” fame -- making 50 gallons of soup a week and delivering it by bicycle.

And he couldn’t be happier because his business provides a healthy, mostly vegetarian product that nourishes, is “green,” sustainable and community-oriented, offers him a daily appreciation of Austin’s natural beauty, and lets him forge a real connection with his neighbors and customer.

Ansel cherishes all of that so much that he spent his 30th birthday recently pedaling his bike around South Austin, delivering soup to his regulars plus an occasional newcomer who gets on his list when someone else drops off.

Ding, ding, ding.

He rings a kiddie metal bell on his bike’s handlebars as he arrives.

The Alesis greet him enthusiastically. “It’s our first time. We’ve been on the waiting list,” says Brian Alesi, a photographer, tasting his first delivery.

“Very good. I like it,” he pronounced after sampling a spoonful.

That’s high praise because Brian has never been a soup lover. It was his wife, Stella, a photographer and painter, who converted him and got them on Ansel’s route, which is maxed out now at 100 subscribers.

Ansel smiles at the compliment and hands them the “welcome package,” consisting of a Soup Peddler bumper sticker and a printed description and history of his soup of the week.

He’s researched it, testing it in a small batch (usually) before committing to making vats of it. And it’s vital to him to share the soup’s background with his consumers.

Then, the slender Soup Peddler, wearing a T-shirt, shorts and sandals, hops back on his bike and pedals off to the house of Jeanne Dake, who trains dressage horses in Dripping Springs. A foodie, she raves about Ansel’s soup from the week before – Algerian zucchini lemon. “It’s wonderful to come home to a meal,” Dake says.

Bikers, stay-at-home moms, professionals – they all love the soup service, Ansel says. It costs $7 a quart, with a two-quart minimum, including delivery. And it’s healthy. “These soups are liquid Power Bars or pureed salads,” he says.

Subscribers who won’t be home on their delivery day leave a cooler and ice pack on the porch, along with the empty container from the previous week. Ansel picks up the old, replaces with the new and forges on.

The system works, but it’s not perfect. Occasionally, he is left holding the soup when a customer fails to cancel his order or leave an iced cooler. His disappointment shows as he shakes his dark curly head. He made that soup for them, to nurture them, to help them with their week – and they blew it.

The soup recipes are largely vegetarian, often international and boldly flavored, and seldom repeated. Saffron risotto, Zimbabwe peanut stew, potato leek, posole Sonora, homestyle Maryland crab (a nod to Ansel’s roots) and black-eyed pea jambalaya are on a list of recent soups at www.souppeddler.com.

The soups bring enthusiastic responses, even poetic ones. An e-mail from Rosanna Piccillo, posted on the Web site, raves about the Thai green curry: “You rock, you roll. Your soup lifts up my soul.” And here’s one from Bouldin Avenue haiku priestess Jody Zemel: “Shiitake carrots, miso clouds rise to vapor, the soup was superb.”

But not every recipe is a unanimous hit. Ansel offered an Iraqi soup several weeks ago – pre-0war – made with pomegranate syrup, mint, cilantro and lime that drew a wide response, from “too bizarre” to “wild about it.” And there was a five-spice pumpkin soup that some folks didn’t like. But those are in the minority, he says.

Ansel began his soup service cooking on a four-burner stove in a small 6-foot galley kitchen in a South Austin home that he shares with others. Needing the use of a commercial kitchen to be legal, he worked a deal with Thai Passion. Now he rents cooking space at Lambert’s on the days the South Congress Avenue restaurant is closed.

Generally it’s just Ansel, wearing a T-shirt and a wool newsboy cap turned backward, scrubbing and slicing 50 pounds of potatoes or chopping mountains of onions while he makes soup and listens to music of Prairie Home Companion’s Garrison Keillor on the radio.

A cerebral guy who subscribes to magazines such as Gastronomica., Ansel philosophizes about the KP task. “It’s alchemy – what this potato will turn into in two to three hours.”

He concedes that, at times, the work can be lonely drudgery. So he gets creative. Once, when a recipe called for 200 pounds of sweet potatoes, he threw a Tom Sawyer-like peeling party and enlisted his friends.

A man of few toys, it seems, Ansel does have his own 32-quart soup pots, a $500 industrial immersion blender (it looks like an outboard motor) for pureeing soups, and a two-door Hobart refrigerator for soup storage. “This is sweet,” he says, proudly patting the fridge, an $800steal.

From farm stands to ethic markets, he shops for and cooks with broad flavors because he does not use stocks. Asian chili garlic sauce, fresh ginger, peanut butter, sesame oil and brown sugar were among the ingredients for the Sichuan carrot soup.

Before ladling the soup into the two-quart containers for delivery, he tasted it again. Surprised to find that the chili garlic sauce had lost its punch overnight, he corrected the seasoning.

Although Ansel still teaches yoga a couple of days a week and lives the South Austin lifestyle, he words about 40 hours a week: planning menus, keeping up his database, testing, ordering, cooking, delivering, managing a Web site. Being the Soup Peddler gives him a decent living for a single person (about $25,000), but he’s found that soup is a seasonal draw. So, for four months in the summer, he is the Soup Vacationer, with no income.

But being the Soup Peddler “is really a treat to me,” says Ansel, an electrical engineering graduate of the University of Maryland. “It combines the pragmatic side and the creative side.”

Plus deliver involves exercise, sometimes 50 miles a week. On days of drenching rain, Ansel will drive his Subaru Outback for delivery. But during the ice storm in February, he delivered soup by bike and was delighted to meet some of his customers who are usually at the office.

His nine-speed bike is a work-horse, which he designed with a dirt bike handle so he can sit in an upright, yoga-friendly posture. We doubt that Lance Armstrong would be impressed. The kids at Fulmore Middle School surely aren’t.

“Man, you’ve got a (expletive) bike,” he is told on a recent outing. To which his initial reaction is: “Kid, I want to beat you up.”

But the Soup Peddler is about nourishment, not aggression. So he pedals on.

When he crosses the Blunn Creek footbridge in Travis Heights, with the trees and limestone rocks, he’s glad once again to be the Soup Peddler. “It’s the sweetest part of my week.”

And when his customers leave him brownies or cookies on their porches, that’s sweet, too.