The line starts to form at noon outside the Soup Spot on West 31st Street, across from Madison Square Garden. Photo: Liz Hardaway
Walking down 31st Street across from Madison Square Garden at lunchtime, there’s always an intimidating line running outside of the tucked-away, hidden gem that is no bigger than a typical college dorm room.
After waiting for 10 minutes, a visitor is greeted by three apron-clad men with soup ladles dripping creamy broccoli cheddar. “Next,” they say; a mountain of bread towers between the pots of soup and cash register. Along the counter lies a list: Boston clam chowder, Thai chicken curry, Hungarian mushroom. There are 16 soups to choose from along with sandwiches and specialty salads.
Get it while it lasts, though, because all 16 soups change daily at the Soup Spot.
The Soup Spot was opened 15 years ago by long-time friends and business partners Paul Vellios and John Kelepesis. They worked together for years in the service industry as bartenders, waiters and managers, and then opened up Café 31, a sports bar and grill on 31st Street connected to what used to be a deli. After realizing the potential for the space next door, the two bought the storefront and turned it into what is now the Soup Spot.
“It’s a big commitment and it’s very, very stressful,” Constantine Kelepesis, 32, said, after taking over for his father eight years ago when he was diagnosed with cancer. “You have to be a special type of psychopath to get into this line of work.”
The Spot is only open on weekdays, but patrons looking for a hot cup of soup on the weekends can always venture into Café 31. There, the owners will serve soups for which they have a surplus of ingredients.
During the week, the Soup Spot will be prepping for the lunchtime rush as early as nine in the morning. Workers start cutting the bread and making the 16 soup bases from scratch in the kitchen at Café 31. Since the shop is so tiny, they use the space from the connecting restaurant to fully prepare the soups, then carry the pots next door to serve.
Each soup, small or large, comes with a complimentary apple, and bread perfect for dipping in the warm, creamy soup. The Soup Spot usually has 350-500 people daily filing through their lines.
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” Paul Vellios said.
Inspired by the Soup Nazi from Seinfeld, this tiny space is only visible through the bright, fluorescent signs boasting about their homemade soups. Regardless of its underwhelming exterior, it’s still one of the most successful establishments in the area.
“We’re the millennium falcon of food establishments,” said Kelepesis.
Though the soups change daily, the Soup Spot does keep some fan favorites year-round: Boston clam chowder; lobster, shrimp and salmon bisque; vegetarian Mediterranean lentil with vegetables (offered as a gluten and dairy-free option); split pea with ham, Italian-style wedding soup with chicken meatballs; and old-fashioned chicken noodle soup with vegetables are all staples on the menu. The shop offers daily options for gluten-free and dairy-free customers.
Even though the businesses has been open for 15 years now, Kelepesis and Vellios still dedicate a majority of their time to their restaurants.
“You have to be here ... the ultimate sacrifice you have to make [to keep a restaurant running] is literally being here all the time,” Kelepesis said.
In the restaurant, both men make their rounds to greet and shake hands with every staff member and chef, adopting a familial rapport. Though the owners sacrifice time with their family, friends and relationships for their food, it’s a labor of love.