Customers don't mind standing outside on a chilly, rainy Saturday while waiting in line at Atlanta's Souper Jenny. They know the food will warm them.
Inside, steam rises from pots filled with the day's selection of six soups. Sandwiches, heaping bowls of spinach salad and fruit salad, and chocolate-chip cookies stacked on a plate are the other choices on a spring day.
The bustling 10-year-old eatery, staffed by actors, often uses locally grown and organic ingredients in its ever-changing lineup of soups, salads and sandwiches.
"The closer it's grown to us, the less fuel it's using to get across. That's, to me, important," owner Jenny Levison says. "It's a fresher product because it's close by and it's getting to you sooner."
She started the restaurant after moving back to Atlanta and looking for a job that allowed her to be at the theater in the evening and incorporate her love of cooking — with no formal culinary training. Levison operated a small sandwich counter — Jenny's Marketplace — and owned a catering business before opening Souper Jenny, located in a Buckhead shopping center.
The restaurant, which is open for lunch seven days a week, is now twice the size of her original 10-seat place. At times, it gets so packed that diners in the cafeteria-style line are told to wait before placing their orders until tables are available.
Despite the lunch crowd, the coffee shop atmosphere encourages people to linger and many customers greet each other and the staff by name. Seating options range from a cozy couch and banquette seating to a communal table in the middle of one room and smaller tables throughout — where some diners don't mind sharing their space. There's also seating on a garden patio.
The casual atmosphere and colorful decor lends itself to creativity, says Ada Hatzios, who sometimes heads there with her public relations colleagues to brainstorm. Her personal favorites include "my dad's turkey chili" and the salads made with organic spinach greens and a fruit salad served with a dollop of Greek yogurt.
"It's all really tasty. It's really healthy," she says. "The atmosphere is one of the best things about it. Sometimes the staff is singing as they're serving you in line. I like that she's got the pictures of her family and friends all over the restaurant. It makes it really personal."
Levison hopes her homey environment helps people feel comfortable if they want to eat by themselves and read a magazine, or come as a group. Some diners don't miss Thursday nights, when grilled cheese is served for dinner and s'mores for dessert.
For her ingredients, Levison seeks locally grown and organic items, from the fruit and proteins to pesto made by a local company with hydroponically grown basil. Her new chilled latte, the Whynatte, is made locally with hormone-free milk.
The kids' menu includes an organic peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Sometimes the desserts also get that touch, such as the organic chocolate cakey cookies, made from a Weight Watchers recipe. Souper Jenny also recycles and is considering composting.
But Levison acknowledges that it's difficult for restaurants to be completely organic and local without the ability to grow everything themselves. It was difficult for her last year to offer a 100 percent organic soup every day without repeating the same thing.
"We try as much as we can," she says. "Anything that's available, we'll get. Everything is not available."
Atlantan Andrea Stephens, who was first attracted to the restaurant's atmosphere, says she returns because of the quality of the food. The website — souperjennyatl.com — provides the day's menu, which also is sent out in daily e-mail alerts.
"I've been eating at a lot more organic-type places," Stephens says. "Fresh products and organic products are really important. I think [they're] healthy for you as an individual and for our environment."
The restaurant sells items separately, but many diners go for the $12 lunch, which has an option of two items (soup, salad or sandwich), plus a roll, piece of fruit, drink and dessert, usually a cookie. Some budget-conscious diners say the portions are large enough for leftovers.
"The taste of their food is really good," Stephens says. "I know that it's probably a little more expensive than [other] soup and sandwich places around, but it's definitely worth the money."
Cooking at home
"You're going to get locally grown food. They give you just enough for how many people you need to feed," she says. "It exposes you to how good food can taste when it's local."