Meet the masterminds behind Zoup!’s menu, Director of Culinary Innovation Jess Wainwright and Culinary Manager Chan Owens. Our culinary team is responsible for innovating, developing, and executing a balanced menu full of yummy and wholesome foods. The finished product is the menu you see in our Zoup! restaurants & eateries.
Q: If you had to describe your job to someone who had absolutely 0 idea what ‘culinary innovation’ is, what would you tell them?
Wainwright: It’s identifying trends in the market and adapting them to our specific Zoup customer.
Owens: I would describe culinary innovation as making food that works for Zoup! Soups, salads, and sandwiches that meet who we want to be as a fast casual brand.
Q: How long have you been with Zoup!?
Wainwright: I’m a very new employee, I’ve been with Zoup! for two months.
Owens: Almost 14 years.
Q: What did you do before joining the Zoup team!?
Wainwright: For the past 6 ½ years I was the Sr. Culinary R&D manager for a dry mix blender in Detroit.
Owens: I managed a few other fast casual restaurants before I joined Zoup!
Q: How has your role changed during your time at Zoup!?
Wainwright: This is probably more of a Chan question!
Owens: I’ve done a little bit of everything for Zoup! When I first started, I was managing several different restaurants and training franchisees. From there, I slowly started getting into menu development and subsequently over the years my position has grown into what it is now.
Q: What is most important when creating a taste profile for a menu item?
Wainwright: For me, it’s key that it tastes great. But before that, I look for balance. For instance, is it sweet and heat, is it too acidic, too hot, or too spicy?
Owens: We strive for each menu item to have really big flavor, and if it happens to hit an area of opportunity on the menu then it’s a for sure home-run for us.
Q: What is your favorite Zoup! menu item?
Wainwright: A new item that we are launching this fall called the Medi-Veggie sandwich. It is by far one of my favorite sandwiches – I think I make it the most here in the test kitchen when I want to eat lunch!
Owens: My favorite is the Blazin’ Broccoli Broth Bowl. It has really big flavor, and it’s a little spicy which is something I look for in many of the foods that I eat.
Q: What new items can customers expect to see on the menu this upcoming fall?
Wainwright: Three new cold sandwiches: Italian Market, Medi-Veggie, and Modern Tuna. We are also developing two new bowls, a Buffalo Chicken Grain Bowl and a Zesty Chicken and Lime Broth Bowl.
Owens: We’re also working on developing a classic tomato soup and grilled cheese pairing we’re calling Grilled Cheese Dippers what we’re really excited about as well.
Q: What new item are you most excited about, and why?
Wainwright: I’m most excited about the two new bowls, just because I had more input in their development. The new sandwiches were mostly finalized when I started at Zoup!
Owens: I’m excited for the new sandwiches. I think they fit an opportunity on our menu that we’ve been missing – particularly a cold sandwich and I think it will help drive sales and help ease some operational issues in the restaurants during rushes.
Q: What is the greatest thing about being a chef?
Wainwright: One of the best parts about my job is that I get to learn a lot about people by being a chef. I learn about their culture, how they eat, what they value, and their hospitality side. In short, I can reach someone on a whole new level by eating with them or working with them in the kitchen.
Owens: We spend our days eating and creating food – I’m not sure if it gets much better than that!
Q: How did you learn to be a chef – did you study anywhere? When did you decide to do this for your career?
Wainwright: I got my culinary degree from Johnson & Wales. I’ve had a passion for culinary that began when I was young and kept burning my whole life. In third grade I was that annoying child who was constantly critiquing my mom’s lunches. This led me to start thinking about what foods I wanted to eat and making menus. I developed my own lunch menu as a kid, got the ingredients, and kept building from there. I got involved in a culinary program in high school, loved it, and decided this is what I want to do.
Owens: It’s all been an experience for me, as I did not go to culinary school. However, I’ve been working in restaurants in one role or another for over 25 years – and all that experience has led me to where I am today. I tried my hand in other professions and always seemed to find my way back to restaurants. Early on I made the decision that this industry would be the best fit for me as a career.
Q: What is your favorite ingredient to work with?
Wainwright: I’ve been studying Indian food for the past year. One of the most intriguing aspects of Indian cooking is how they use spices, which is very different from how we do in the U.S. As a result, I’ve learned a lot about understanding balance while using spices in cooking and would have to say spices are my current favorite.
Owens: I love working with our Good, Really Good cooking broths. They can be found in grocery stores across the nation, and I feel that when you start with better ingredients, your end-product will be that much better.