Photography by Ingrid Kuenzel
If you happen to spy Margaret Nemeth at one of her Primal Soup Company booths at the Crossroads Market or the Market on MacLeod, you’ll immediately see that the energetic atmosphere of a Farmers’ Market suits her.
As Nemeth chats with customers, other vendors, and friends who stop by, her enthusiastic greetings and joyous laughter are hard to ignore — this is a woman who clearly likes people. In fact, she loves them. Warm, hearty, and full of surprises, the words used to describe Nemeth’s personality can just as easily be used to describe her soup.
The Primal Soup Co. is a fairly new entity — the frozen containers of soup, with flavours like Mango Butternut Squash; Spinach, Artichoke and Feta; and Thai Coconut Chicken, first showed up at the Market on MacLeod (then the Kingsland Farmers’ Market) in 2011 — but Nemeth is not new to the food and beverage game.
Long-time Calgarians may recognize the Primal name and the taste of Nemeth’s homemade soups from the now defunct Primal Grounds Cappuccino Bar and Eatery in Killarney, which Nemeth owned and ran from 1996 through to 2010.
Nemeth opened that business after a career in oil and gas, and the stand-alone café was a solid success for her. Not only did it serve up great coffee, Nemeth quickly made a name for herself with her homemade soup creations. All homemade and gluten-free (due to Nemeth’s own dietary restrictions), Primal Grounds was catering to people with gluten intolerances long before it became fashionable.
Nemeth opened that business after a career in oil and gas, and the stand-alone café was a solid success for her. Not only did it serve up great coffee, Nemeth quickly made a name for herself with her homemade soup creations. All homemade and gluten-free (due to Nemeth’s own dietary restrictions), Primal Grounds was catering to people with gluten intolerances long before it became fashionable. “We were pioneers and it was so much fun,” Nemeth says. “There were lots of ups and downs, but it was a good life.”
Nemeth sold the café when a real estate developer made her an offer she couldn’t refuse, but she still felt the urge to be around people and feed them. So she set up shop in the markets – first the Market on MacLeod, and then in January of 2015 she opened a stall in the rebranded Crossroads Market.
Primal Soup also sells lunch items like gourmet macaroni and cheese, sandwiches, and homemade pies and pastries, so that market wanderers can stop by the stall and grab a full lunch while perusing the soup cooler for something to take home for a future meal.
“When you’re in a market, you have to give people reasons to stop,” Nemeth says. “So we offer things to go with the soup, which also gives them ideas for what they can do at home. Or sometimes they’ll come for a sandwich and then they’ll look at the soups. You have to give people reasons to be in this space.”
Whatever Nemeth is doing, it seems to be working. Between the two farmers’ markets and specialty retailers like the Market on 17th, Sunnyside Market, and SPUD delivery boxes, Primal Soup Co. sells over 1,000 containers of soup every week. Nemeth develops the recipes herself, but has hired a full-time chef to keep up with the demand.
Personality and strategic stall locations in busy farmers’ markets alone isn’t enough to move that kind of volume of soup — while Nemeth has made smart business decisions over the course of Primal’s various incarnations, the key to her success really lies in the product itself. Everything is made from scratch without the aid of pre-bought soup bases, and Nemeth uses seasonal ingredients (only 20 to 30 of her 50 soup varieties are ever available at any given time), supporting her neighbours at the markets when possible. Her meat stocks are built from organic chicken bones, Winters’ turkey carcasses, and duck bones from fellow market vendor, Green Eggs and Ham, to build a rich and delicious broth.
“I layer my soups,” Nemeth says. “I don’t just throw everything in the pot together. And there has to be a twist in every one. There has to be something that you don’t expect — a surprise in every box.”
To bring things full circle, Nemeth has a new venture that just opened kitty corner to her Primal Soup stall in the Crossroads Market: a beautiful and shiny new Primal Grounds coffee location. With a long counter for people to sit at for as long as they like (Nemeth jokes that it’s the perfect place for bored spouses to sit while their partners shop the market), it’s an updated nod to what got Primal Soup started in the first place.
And it’s also a testament to Nemeth’s dedication to market life — the lack of control she has over her own hours and some other aspects aren’t perfect, but the busyness, the proximity to likeminded vendors, and most of all, the people she gets to interact with on a constant basis, has put Nemeth exactly where she belongs.
“You’re only as strong as the market is collectively,” she says. “It’s different than being a restaurant, but I have to say, it’s the funnest thing I’ve ever done.”