Chefs Mike Solomonov and Steve Cook are the masterminds behind CookNSolo, the Philadelphia-based restaurant group that brought modern Israeli cuisine to the national lens at Zahav. They also found common ground between fried chicken and donuts at Federal Donuts, and struck fast-casual gold with Dizengoff, a hummusiya (hummus restaurant) with locations in Philadelphia and New York. The duo’s brand-new endeavor, Rooster Soup Co., which opened in January 2017, is equally groundbreaking. It’s a sleek new diner that donates all of its profits to charity.
Federal Donuts’ unexpected success led to the development of Rooster Soup Co., as Philadelphia’s appetite for the company’s signature pairing of za’atar-dusted drumsticks and tres leches donuts proved insatiable, and the operation grew from a tiny South Philly storefront to five locations throughout the city. All were breaking down their own whole birds, which left them with an excess of chicken backs. “We were up to our eyeballs in chicken parts,” says Cook.
Enter Broad Street Ministry, which provides a wide range of services to homeless Philadelphians. “Chicken bones to soup isn’t much of a stretch,” Cook explains. “The original idea was to give them soup.”
Although Broad Street serves hundreds each week, the operation hardly resembles a soup kitchen. Instead of lining up for a tray of food, diners sit down to a restaurant experience, where volunteer servers deliver multicourse meals crafted by an in-house kitchen staff. It’s a model that they call “radical hospitality,” and goes far beyond the basics of feeding the hungry.
When Cook’s soup proposal was rebuffed due to logistical issues, the team landed on a soup-centric restaurant concept whose profits would benefit Broad Street’s ongoing efforts. In June 2014, a Kickstarter was launched, complete with a video of Mike Solomonov decked out in a chicken suit. The crowdfunding effort was an instant success, netting nearly $180,000, representing $30,000 over the original goal.
More than two years later, Rooster Soup Co. is up and running in a former subterranean kebab shop on Sansom Street, about a block away from Dizengoff, Federal Donuts and Abe Fisher, the pair’s ode to global Jewish fare. “It was a big deal to find the right location,” says Cook. “It’s one thing to open up something with our own money, but it’s another thing to do that with other people’s money.”
From conception, there were lots of logistical issues pertaining to the idea of a year-round soup restaurant. Even with appealing bowls like chicken noodle pho and pastrami ramen (“pastramen”) in the works, was a soup-only menu really going to fly come summertime?
When CookNSolo finally got their hands on the long, narrow space, it was clear that a lunch counter was the way to go. Working with local design firm BoxWood Architects, they converted the dark room into an airy chrome-and-tile luncheonette that’s pleasingly retro and full of classic diner touches, like plastic water tumblers, shiny napkin dispensers and red faux-leather banquettes.
Delaying the original opening date — hardly a unique roadblock in the restaurant world — had one distinct advantage. Cook and Solomonov had recently sold Percy Street Barbecue, their Southern concept on South Street. That meant that longtime Percy Street chef Erin O’Shea was free to jump in at Rooster Soup Co.
With a near-endless supply of chicken parts to work with each week — 500 pounds or more — O’Shea, along with other members of the CookNSolo crew, came up with a modern diner menu that made the best possible use of homemade chicken stock.
The breakfast menu features oversize sticky buns, sweet potato oatmeal, rice grits with chorizo and eggs, and cornbread sausage waffles. Come lunchtime, tin mugs are filled with stock-based diner classics, like beef and vegetable and mushroom barley soups. The matzo ball soup gets a leg up from both house-smoked schmaltz (chicken fat) and smoked beef fat from neighboring Abe Fisher.
As a nod to CookNSolo’s affinity for Middle Eastern flavors, a pot pie comes by way of Yemen with turmeric, caraway and cumin-spiced chicken thighs. Poached in that wonderful chicken stock, the tender pieces of chicken and potatoes are bound together with a veloute made from the poaching liquid.
“I never thought that I would be doing a diner,” O’Shea says. “But it just fits and feels wonderful, and I’m completely in love with it.”
O’Shea’s fondness for this brand of comforting fare is expressed throughout the menu, with playful takes on staples. The BLT subs out a crisp potato latke for lettuce (huge upgrade), and a patty melt comes smothered in a creamy everything bagel-spiced sauce. For dessert, grab a towering slice of coconut cream pie.
With plans for Federal Donuts to open branches in both Miami and Nashville in the near future, the inevitable question is whether or not its charitable side project will go national as well.
Two weeks into this new venture, it’s a little early for Cook to answer, preferring an open-ended response: “Talk to me in a year.”