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Süp’s On!

For a warm winter meal, you can’t beat this popular Midtown eatery. But you should also know the backstory of this determined Reno couple—and how they eventually found the recipe for success.

By Paula Rile

When Christian and Kasey Christensen describe their decade at the helm of Reno restaurant Süp (pronounced “soup” of course), they smile and defer to each other, chiming in with anecdotes and asides. But they also agree it’s been nothing short of a wild ride. Credit belongs, perhaps, to their 11 years of marriage and 17 years together, 4+ years of parenthood, and the recognition that owning a business is, as Christian puts it, a lifestyle.

The Christensens’ lifestyle requires wearing all hats during long workdays and workweeks: purchasing and receiving, hiring and training, recipe development, cooking, troubleshooting, finance, customer relations and more. There’s also networking with other business owners in the Midtown District, where their 1918 house-cum-restaurant is located. (The pair rented the house in 2011 and immediately renovated it, turning the original master bedroom and sunroom into additional kitchen space; happily, they were able to purchase the building this past year.)

Christian and Kasey Christensen. Photo by Paula Riley.

Christian and Kasey Christensen. Photo by Paula Riley.

A typical day starts at 8 a.m., with the kitchen in full-on prep mode. The staff calls to one another amid the clang of pots and knives. Aromas of sizzling meat and veggies fill the air, while fresh-baked bread loaves and rolls give off a yeasty perfume. All is in order by the time a hip young couple arrives at 11 a.m. sharp for sandwiches served on the shady outdoor deck, followed by a woman named Robin who orders take-out—the Toasted Veggie sandwich and Pozole, a Spanish-style soup, she says she’s been craving. It will roll this way for another 10 hours.

Soup suits all seasons, but when the weather cools, the line inside can spill out the door and onto the sidewalk. Kasey says it wasn’t always this way, however. Their current location seats 100 when the L-shaped deck fills up, but Süp’s original site, a few blocks down the street, held a fraction of that number. There, friendly strangers shared the seven small tables, but such meager seating couldn’t sustain a growing business. The Christensens were barely scraping by, even with people rooting for them and pitching in (Kasey’s mother washed dishes). “The first years,” says Christian, “there was no balance, it was all work. There were no pets, there was no garden. The lawn died.”

Eventually they found that balance, however, motivated to a large degree by impending parenthood. In fact, moving the restaurant to its larger location, where they were better able to organize the front of the house (her strong suit) and the back of the house (his forte), meant Kasey could spend much of son Soren’s first year at home with him. “We put in a lot of hard work in the beginning,” she says, “which allowed us to have a little more freedom (later).” This littlest Christensen now attends preschool, and in four or five years, he might get the chance to help in the restaurant, say his parents. Perhaps he will learn to bake cookies or bread, roast coffee or compost the kitchen clippings, grow tomatoes or garden greens—essentials currently sourced through other local businesses. By then, there might be a second Süp location in south Reno. Or a third.

But again, this was not always a foregone conclusion: Süp launched just as the U.S. economy fell apart in 2008. The Christensens did things backwards but succeeded anyway because, says Kasey, with her infectious laugh, “We are optimists and dreamers.” The two also had a mutual passion for preparing food. Both had cooked or baked from a young age, and later worked for big names like Hyatt. During their time living in Colorado, they hosted Sunday soup dinners for friends, honoring their notion of good, honest food cooked from scratch. The question soon became, could they make a soup restaurant work?

It turned out that what they didn’t know made for mistakes. After relocating to Christian’s hometown of Reno, they “started a business because of the passion,” says Kasey, “but we didn’t have all of the knowledge to really know what we needed for doing it the correct way. We stumbled and fumbled and fell and picked ourselves up—and we learned the hard way with a lot of that. I would encourage people to diversify beyond just their passion, and to delve into the business side of it…We are business owners who happen to own a restaurant. The restaurant was our passion…but we had to become passionate about business because that’s what keeps the restaurant alive.”

Their costliest mistake was not hiring an experienced tax professional on day one, resulting in a huge tax bill they somehow weathered. Because they’re good communicators with a strong relationship, they identified options and discovered they had the fortitude to hang in. The lesson learned: Know what you do well and outsource what you don’t do well.

A second equally important business maxim: Know your business and create a good team around you. “Anyone can make soup,” says Kasey. The secret to success is “training someone to do what you do and having them do it just as well, (so) you get to be home at night.” Adds Christian, “Delegating and trusting your employees (leads to) a good, solid product that you can serve to many people.”

Photo courtesy of Süp.

Photo courtesy of Süp.

Süp’s “product” includes crowd favorites to eat in or take out: Chicken Tortilla, Tomato Bisque, Broccoli Cheddar and Chicken Noodle. Others rotate in as daily specials: Loaded Baked Potato, vegan Gazpacho, Pork Enchilada, Clam Chowder and more. New combinations arise from Christian discovering ingredients at farmers’ markets or co-ops. His experimentation just might lead to the next new menu item (think: Green Apple-Butternut Squash soup made with squash from Fallon, Nevada).

Besides soups, there are sandwiches—ranging from Cajun Egg Salad to Pesto Turkey, BBQ Chicken to Char-grilled Steak on a baguette—as well as salads, hummus plates and quiche. Every dish is prepped, cooked and plated by staff “who are like family,” says Kasey, as she touches a fingertip to the corner of her eye. “It gets me emotional because a lot of them have been with us for years. We see them daily and get to know their stories…One of the biggest honors of our lives is being able to have these people be a part of our lives and for us to be a part of theirs…it’s amazing.”

Soup Sundays

Hungry to host a gathering where connections and conversation are powered by pots of fragrant soup? Christian and Kasey Christensen suggest that since soup is comfort food, keep any soup gathering casual. Make a basic soup or two and leave the pots on the stove, ladles at the ready. Stack a bunch of bowls nearby and you’re set.

Homemade soup stock starts with the basic building blocks: diced celery, onions, carrots and garlic cloves, sautéed in a bit of olive oil then simmered in water for at least 30 minutes. The longer stock cooks, the more its flavor deepens. Add ingredients to suit: mushrooms, leeks, bay leaves…be inventive! Strain out the solids before using stock as the base for your soup (stock is also used for stew, sometimes sauce).

The Christensen approach to delegating applies here: Invite guests to bring a topping or garnish. For instance, when serving chicken pot pie soup, make the base and have others bring toppings—crumb crusts or meats like crispy bacon or pancetta. That way, everyone owns a bit of the evening’s success.

As for bread, Christian counsels, “Stay away from soft breads, go with a little more body or crust—a pugliese or ciabatta, something that has a good chew to it.” Bread needs to stand up to dipping and soaking. Slice it, brush with a little olive oil, then toast it gently before serving.

“We always think whatever you like to drink, drink that,” says Christian. “But there are pairings that could be fun.” Spicy or creamy fare pair nicely with the effervescence of a sparkling white wine or beer (for extra spicy, try milk). With a bisque, consider a pinot or zinfandel. And to send your clam chowder over the top, choose a fortified wine like a Madeira or port (if it comes from a local winery, all the better) and add a thimbleful to the pot. Just like that, you’ll be cooking like a chef.

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