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Thursday, Dec. 4, 2003 02:20 pm

Soup’s on

Daniel Laurence-Richardson, Feed Store assistant manager, works the soup counter.
photo by Penny Zimmerman-Wills

No matter the season, the soup's always on at the Feed Store. For nearly three decades, the restaurant has been serving up bowls of mushroom bisque and Wisconsin cheese soup for lunchtime crowds.

The restaurant keeps it simple: soup, sandwiches, and desserts. Many of the sandwich options are standard fare, such as turkey, ham, and chicken salad. But the six rich, hearty soups, prepared daily and made with cream, fresh vegetables and seasonings, earned the Feed Store a reputation as a popular downtown staple for a quick meal.

The Feed Store almost came about by accident. In the mid-'70s, Ann Laurence and her husband, Ross Richardson, were planning their next career move. After they moved to Springfield to work for former Gov. Dan Walker, the administration changed, so they decided to try a new venture: a fine dining restaurant. The only problem was their lack of experience. Laurence had only worked briefly as a waitress and Richardson had spent a few weeks one summer at a fast food place. "The banker laughed us out the door," Laurence says. But he casually mentioned to the couple that they might start simply, perhaps with a soup and sandwich place.

They took his advice and opened the Feed Store in 1977, offering beef barley and mushroom bisque, plus an array of sandwiches. The menu has expanded to six soups offered daily, but the basics still are the same. "It's embarrassing," Laurence says. "But you don't want to change anything because it does work."

The recipes were garnered from various sources, including cookbooks written by Julia Child and the New York Times. The barley soup recipe came from the back of a box of barley.

The restaurant, located in a former jewelry store across from the Old State Capitol, features a painted vintage tin ceiling, green floral wallpaper, and plenty of small, wooden tables. Repeat customers know the routine: after entering the front door, you walk to kitchen counter in the back and place your order. There is often a waiting line around lunch, but there are several menus posted on the wall, allowing you to decide on your order by the time you reach the front of the line. After your order is taken, you're given a number and then seated. A server calls out your number and delivers your food. One reason the Feed Store is so popular with the downtown working crowd is the quick service. You can easily eat lunch in less than an hour.

The couple's son, Daniel, 24, now works in the restaurant, serving as assistant manager and soup maker. He starts every morning at 6:30 a.m., with large stockpots of water. After vegetables are chopped and trimmed and roux is made, among other preparations, "by 10:30 a.m., we have 150 to 175 quarts of soup, or 200 to 275 quarts of soup, every day [depending on the season]," Laurence says.

I have tried several soups at the Feed Store, but my favorite is Wisconsin cheese, a flavorful blend of cheddar and white sauce mixed with beef froth flavored with beer. Another good choice is the zucchini chowder, a hearty blend of zucchini, corn, celery, mushrooms, green pepper, tomato, onion, and garlic. Some varieties like the French potato and cream of broccoli are pureed. While these soups are flavorful, I personally like to see chunks of ingredients in my soup and stick to the heartier variations.

Other varieties include vegetable beef, chicken and corn, minestrone, cream of broccoli, mushroom bisque, cream of spinach, French potato, tomato bisque and seafood chowder.

In the summer, cold soups are offered, including strawberry, gazpacho, cantaloupe, and cucumber and mint. But most customers prefer the hot variety, according to Laurence. "A lot of soup still goes out the door in the summertime. Soup is something that everybody who comes in the door will order."

Sandwich house specialties include the Feed Store's most popular, a chicken salad that is a thick blend of white meat. Despite the fact they sell more than 150 a day, it's nothing fancy: just chicken, mayonnaise, celery and seasonings on bread. Other specialty sandwiches include the Upper Crust, a blend of cream cheese, olives, carrots, celery, dill and chives with turkey breast. Basics like turkey, roast beef, corned beef, pastrami, tuna salad and ham are also offered. Sandwiches are served with a pickle and orange slice. If you hate to make decisions, like I do, order the "No-Choice," which is a case of "we make it -- you take it." A sandwich, cup of soup and beverage is featured each day for this option.

The Feed Store is located at 516 E. Adams St. Phone: 217-528-3355. Lunch hours: 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Mon.-Sat.

From the kitchen

Here's the Feed Store's recipe for five quarts of beef barley soup, enough for 12 to 16 servings.

10 ounces, cubed stewing beef
2 tablespoons, cooking oil
3 1/2 quarts, beef broth
1 small onion, finely chopped
1/2 cup, chopped celery
1 1/2 teaspoon, salt
1/2 teaspoon, black pepper
2 1/2 teaspoon, paprika
1/2 teaspoon, granulated garlic
1/2 bay leaf
1/2 pound, barley

Trim stewing beef and blot on paper towels to dry. Heat oil in large stockpot. When oil is hot, add beef to pot and brown rapidly at high heat, stirring frequently. When beef is browned, add beef broth. Leave heat on high. As broth and beef heat, remove fat particles that rise to the surface of pot with a skimming tool or spoon. Replace lost liquid with more broth. The broth should come to a boil when majority of skimming is completed. Add onion, celery and seasonings to pot, and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes. Add barley, stirring occasionally, until the pot returns to a boil. Keep at a medium simmer for about an hour, until barley gets plump and soft.

All this, and dessert, too

The Feed Store's known for soups and sandwiches, but also offers an array of homemade desserts.

The dessert menu offers a variety of cakes, including carrot, apple, and black and white cake (a dark chocolate cake toped with Grand Marnier butter icing). Besides vanilla and chocolate raspberry, a cheesecake of the month is offered, such as strawberry, pumpkin, amaretto, grasshopper, chocolate mocha, blueberry-lime and praline.

"The carrot cake recipe is the same recipe everybody has in their cookbook file," says co-owner Ann Laurence.

"People always ask us for that."

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