One person after another, Frank Warren tells those strolling the northern market house at Centre Market to have, “A souper day.”
It’s his thing, you see. Warren owns and operates the Soup Shack, a quirky little eatery that’s been open for nearly six years. And you guessed it; he makes a lot of soup.
“I like to speak with everyone who comes here to eat or who just walks past the shack because I think it’s the polite thing to do,” he said. “If my wishing them to have a souper day allows them to pause and take a look at our menu, you never know. They may order something.
“If not, that’s fine, too. It’s not all about sales to me,” Warren insisted. “I’m a friendly person, so it’s my nature to talk with people. I like having conversations with our customers, too, until their food is ready. Why not?”
It is about quality, Warren said.
“I taste everything, of course. For some people it’s only about the paycheck, but that’s not true with me,” he explained. “Everything matters in this business, and if I don’t like the way something tastes, why would I think a customer would like it? My presentation might not be the best, but I guarantee when you taste the food, you’re going to like it.
“I do this the old-fashioned way because that’s how everything tastes the best that it can. Cutting corners is not way to go about this business. That’s one thing I know for sure,” Warren said. “I think if you go about this the right way people will recognize it and keep coming back.”
Warren admitted he guides the Soup Shack in unique ways. For example, the plates, glasses, cups, and the bowls are of several shapes and styles, and if you are interested in purchasing one or two of the soups on the menu, he will let you try them first.
And his kitchen?
“It almost looks like the kitchen in your own house,” Warren said with a smile. “I know I have five refrigerators and a couple of stoves, but it’s modeled after the home kitchen; that’s for sure.
“And we always play music because that’s what keeps everyone who works here and everyone who visits happy. It keeps you moving,” he said. “We just care about everybody. We make the food here, but we make sure everything is of the highest quality. At the same time we know we can’t please everyone. You can’t compete with everybody, but you can try, and that’s what we do here at the Soup Shack.”
Warren was 6 years old when living on Cherry Hill outside the Warwood section of Wheeling, but this 44-year-old has lived in Maine, Florida, and Georgia before returning to the Friendly City nearly a decade ago.
“That’s how I know how to make some of the southern things that we offer here,” Warren explained. “While I lived in Maine, I learned how to make the chowders and the bisques that we offer.
“My education came from the School of Hard Knocks, really,” he continued. “I used to skip school every once in a while when my grandma came to visit because I wanted her to teach me how to cook like she could. I’d give the fake cough in the morning. I admitted this to my grandma, and then she would teach me.”
Cooking, for whatever reason, was a trade that attracted Warren at a very early age. He doesn’t know why, though, since his lessons from his grandmother did not begin until he was in grade school.
“My mom has always told me that when I was 3, I would pretend to cook with my Play-Doh,” Warren recalled. “So cooking is something I’ve always wanted to do. It’s a passion, and now I can say I’ve cooked for people like Bobby Bowden, Newt Gingrich, his wife, and a couple of Secret Service guys, and also for Peter Marshall from the Hollywood Squares.
“It’s a comfort food, and when you make a large enough pot of soup, it might last a couple of days,” he said. “But it’s not just about soup at the Soup Shack. I do the salads, and the sandwiches that go right along with the soups that I make here.”
Warren’s Soup Shack is surrounded by creativity. Arts Around Town, a gallery that features the works of local artisans is to the north, a home interior firm is across from his seating area, the Centre Market Bakery is just south, and Oliver’s Pies is on the edge of the north market house.
“And we are food artists here; that’s for sure. We try to make every dish that rolls out look the best it can because people eat with their eyes first,” Warren explained. “If it just looks like a plate of slop, you’re probably not going to want to try it, but if it looks good, then it’s a totally different story.
“I know I’m not a five-star chef or anything close to that, but what we serve seems to be pretty good because we’re still here, and I get pretty busy on a daily basis,” he continued. “We have started doing some catering, and I would love for that area of the business to grow more and more. Right now we’re not known for catering, but I definitely am open to those kinds of services.”
The Soup Shack was well positioned when Centre Market’s popularity increased thanks to the openings of Market Vines, the Wheeling Brewing Company, and a few additional businesses in the past few years. No longer is Centre Market a one-option destination, but the lines remain long for Wheeling’s legendary fish sandwich at Coleman’s Fish Market.
“Centre Market is a great spot for what we do. The rent is very affordable, and the place has been improved so much in the past six years,” Warren explained. “Since Kurt Zende (Centre Market manager) arrived a few years ago, he’s really made a great difference with everything involved with doing business here.
“He’s been able to accomplish a lot since he arrived, and it looks better than I think it ever has,” he said. “These are old buildings, but he has made a huge difference, and that means everything to us. Now there’s something for everyone down here. You can go to the antique stores, get a fish sandwich at Coleman’s, pie at Oliver’s, baked goods at Centre Market Bakery, or you buy local art. It’s really grown in the six years I’ve been located here.”
And Warren believes in giving back to the local economy, and that is why everything one consumes from the Soup Shack was purchased at a Wheeling-based business.
“I do that because I know when I spend money at the local places that it’s going to stay here in our economy and not somewhere 100 miles from here,” Warren said. “That’s how I can feed my family and buy the groceries that we need for the Soup Shack.
“I know since I spend my money at Jebbia’s and Miklas and with Grow Ohio Valley that those dollars are staying right here, and that means my usual customers will have the money to keep coming back here,” he said. “If you think about it, it makes sense, and that’s why I wish more folks would think about it.”
When he initially returned to Wheeling, Warren decided to gain employment in other people’s kitchens, but it did not take long for him to realize that if he finally wanted to anchor himself, he was going to have to establish his very own eatery for the first time in his life.
“I worked at three restaurants here in town – the Metropolitan, Later Alligator, and for Oglebay — but I never really could make much money working those jobs,” he said. “I’m the kind of guy who always wants to put out a rocking product no matter who I’m working for, so I just figured out that I should do it while working for myself. And I love what I do now.
“When I first moved back to Wheeling I came here with $800 in my pocket, but since I’ve been able to buy a house, I’m now engaged, and I have a baby boy,” he continued. “Everything just seems to be going really well, so I consider myself a very lucky man to have my fiancé, Emilia, my son, Daniel, and our business.”
It’s not his “dream come true,” though, and he admits it, but that’s only because that vision involves more than just him and his business.
“I tell people that we need each other. We’re all humans, and we have to work together to make this area the best it can be,” he said. “And I can see that happening now in Wheeling, so maybe in a few years we’ll see the ‘dream come true.’
“We have days here when it just seems as if we’ll never get caught up, and I count my blessings when that is the case. But everything inside the market houses closes before dinner time,” Warren added. “I hope someday down the road we’ll need to stay open during those times because that would mean I could hire more people, expand our menu, and make a little more money. I think we’ll get there, I really, really do.”