At Cafe Buongiorno, a Winnetka restaurant owned by husband-and-wife team Mary Jo and Themis Vlahos, the soup menu expanded from just two varieties when it opened to around 17 by the time the restaurant closed in April 2020.
The soup was so popular that it inspired the couple to start a new, spinoff business, Soupicurean, a restaurant focusing solely on soups and chilis, with more than 18 options, that opened in the spring.
“The soup took on a life of its own (at Cafe Buongiorno), and it became another focus of our restaurant,” Mary Jo Vlahos said.
Vlahos and her husband decided “about four years ago” to take their soups to the next level and launch Soupicurean, which operates out of the same building that was home to Cafe Buongiorno for 22 years.
They’ve been in the location for a few years getting it ready to start soup production, according to Vlahos.
Cafe Buongiorno closed in April 2020, but Vlahos said it didn’t have anything to do with the pandemic; the couple were instead focusing on Soupicurean and the lease to the restaurant was up.
She said that it felt like someone was “watching out” for them due to the timing.
“We made an executive decision to focus on the soups and go from there,” Vlahos said.
But making the decision to close the restaurant and focus on Soupicurean was difficult.
“That was our first restaurant,” Vlahos said. “It was our baby. Our first baby, anyways. We put everything we had into it. It was a big part of our life and sometimes those things are hard to let go of.”
Soupicurean officially opened – albeit takeout business due to restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 – on April 1. Vlahos said they have learned to adapt since the pandemic began, and that being flexible is a needed skill in the restaurant industry.
When indoor dining was allowed in Illinois, Soupicurean had a handful tables available. Vlahos said they’re taking the pandemic day-by-day but she imagines they will feature on-site dining again when they can.
“One thing I learned is that you have to take things as they come and be focused,” Vlahos said.
As far as the soup goes, each one is homemade with fresh, organic ingredients, according to Vlahos. No canned ingredients are used.
“We try to provide a product that we would eat,” Vlahos said. “That’s what has made us successful: providing good quality.”
When looking for a location to start Soupicurean, Vlahos said she and her husband both wanted to stay in Winnetka.
“We really didn’t want to leave Winnetka,” Vlahos said. “We’ve been established there and we have so many wonderful customers.”
Soupicurean is located at 566 Chestnut St., Winnetka, in The Laundry Shopping Mall. It is open from 9 a.m.-7 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday.
Soups are available by the quart and can be ordered by calling (847) 784-8899 or through GrubHub. A full soup menu, plus sandwiches, paninis, burgers and salads, is available online.
Erin is a freelance journalist based in the Chicago area. She most recently served as the editor of The Highland Park Landmark. Her work has also been featured in Chowhound, Choose Chicago, Eat This Not That, MSN and the Lake County News Sun.