Campbell's Top Chef On Why Spicy Soup Is Having A Moment

On Ghost Pepper Chicken Noodle soup, and other ways to keep a century-old product fresh.

Like many food innovators, Campbell's executive chef Bryan Cozzi is faced with the task of attracting new customers. Unlike others, though, he's working for a company with 150 years of tradition and expectation behind it, which can pose some interesting challenges.

Beyond the brand's classic core lineup, you've certainly seen Campbell's many other soup brands on grocery store shelves: Well Yes!, Campbells' Condensed, Swanson, Pacific Foods, and Campbell's Chunky. Cozzi, who has been with Campbell's for a decade, was the chef in charge of developing the Well Yes! brand. And in recent years, Cozzi has brought some spice to the company's iconic Chunky brand, too.

It started with one soup and has ballooned into a whole spice movement as the public demonstrates more of a taste for those flavors. Turning up the heat on classically milder soups feels like a metaphor for Cozzi's entire job: bringing new ideas to an age-old brand. Give us a classic, but make it surprising.

To make tweaks to a product people have enjoyed for decades, Cozzi has to think like its consumers do. He has a pretty specific character profile in mind for the Campbell's Chunky consumer, referring to this archetypal person as a "do-it-all guy."

"He's busy, he's hectic, he's doing a lot," Cozzi says. "We call this segment 'adventurous outsourcers.' Someone who's willing to try new things, wants excitement in their meal options." (Excitement, sure, but also simplicity, due to the demands of this hectic lifestyle. Hence a heat-and-eat soup.)

To appease that adventurous soul, Chunky recently began offering a line of spicy soups that includes chicken noodle, steak and potato, sirloin burger, and chicken and sausage gumbo. Later this week, Campbell's will introduce a new limited-edition Chunky Ghost Pepper Chicken Noodle Soup, giving away 500 cans to those willing to sign a waiver stating they're up for the task of eating it.

The cans of spicy soup will be shipped in a "cool down pack" that includes a sweatband, tissues, and a fan. The whole thing is modern, young, and flashy— utterly optimized for social media. It's a promotion Cozzi says he doesn't think would have been possible when he started at the company 10 years ago.

While working on a new project, Cozzi brings the company's 10 chefs together at the company's "culinary innovation hub," or CIH, for what he calls a "soup jam session." Each of the chefs brings two soup ideas to the table, meaning there are almost two dozen soups in the mix. Often, there's really only room to move forward with two or three. Many of the discards, though, are recorded in what Cozzi calls "the flavor bank," a resource to come back to later when the team needs ideas. A lot of delicious brainstorms have gone into the flavor bank. Some have eventually make it into a can; others are still waiting.

It was at a soup jam session that one chef brought spicy chicken noodle soup to the table.

"He took a twist on the familiar," said Cozzi. "It was taking something that our consumers already know and love, but with this subtle twist that brings excitement back to chicken noodle."

Cozzi said his team had been tracking a spice trend in foods for a while, and, feeling like the time was right to turn up the heat, launched the spicy chicken noodle.

"We launched that by itself, and it did so well in market that they came back and said, 'Hey, this needs to be a platform,'" said Cozzi. "That's our dream, right? Retailers come to us saying, 'we want you to bring excitement to the aisle,' and that's what we got to do."

That led to the other spicy varieties that are now on the shelf and, eventually, to the Ghost Pepper Chicken Noodle, which will not be on grocery shelves but will instead be given away to the first 500 people who request it starting Friday, January 27. The waiver they sign is, by the way, "a total joke and not legally binding," as noted in the fine print.

Cozzi, of course, has tried the ultra-hot soup. "It's not for the weak, that's for sure," he said. "It's got some heat. Be prepared."

Cozzi sees Ghost Pepper Chicken Noodle as more than a limited-time promotion. For a chef who has been tasked with breathing new life into an age-old brand, he sees the new product as breaking ground he couldn't quite find ways to crack earlier in his career.

"I can't tell you how many innovation sessions I've sat in, always coming up with something crazy, and it never would go anywhere," he said. "This time, the appetite was there from leadership. We wouldn't have done anything like this in years past. It's going to be one of those things that really is a new chapter for us. We're willing to experiment and do some things that aren't typically 'Campbells,' a 150-year-old company. It's really groundbreaking."