All it took for Northsider Sarah McAlee’s soup business to blow up was a personal endorsement by Pittsburgh celebrity Rick Sebak.
By Janine Faust
Photo: Sarah McAlee, aka @brothmonger on Instagram, in her cozy Historic Deutschtown kitchen.
It’s an unseasonably warm Saturday afternoon in January, with many Northside residents out for a stroll.
Despite the weather, Sarah McAlee is bustling about the cozy kitchen in the Historic Deutschtown apartment she shares with her boyfriend, making soup. It’s her favorite—her mother’s sausage tortellini recipe with tomatoes, garlic, kale, peppers, and carrots.
“I hope this one goes well, I think it probably will,” she said, stirring the broth in the industrial-size pot on her kitchen stove. “If it doesn’t sell out, that’s fine because [my boyfriend and I] love to eat it.”
McAlee draws soup lovers from across Pittsburgh to the Northside, though most people won’t recognize her name. She’s better known by her Instagram moniker, @brothmonger, where she has been selling homemade soup for a little over a year.
Each week, McAlee cooks two types of soup using local ingredients from the Strip District. She begins prepping in the middle of the week, then spends about four hours on Saturdays “assembling” a classic recipe and a vegan recipe. After she posts the finished products on Instagram on Sundays at noon, followers message her to purchase one of the 25-30 quarts available for $12 each.
For the past three months, her soups have been selling out within a few hours of posting. McAlee had to turn away 14 people during her Broccoli Cheddar and Vegan French Onion soup sale on Jan. 14.
“It’s not always like that, obviously some soups are more popular than others… in that case though, I could have made 20 of each soup and still sold out,” she said.
McAlee, a Pennsylvania native*, began cooking five years ago. Her mother was a “soup freak” and McAlee is just as passionate about the dish.
“I’m from a partially Italian family, meaning I sometimes have portion problems, so I can only cook for 15 people,” she said. “So I’d be making soup for myself and my boyfriend and we’d end up with two weeks worth of soup.”
But McAlee didn’t start selling her broths until Oct. 2018, after seeing a sick friend on Instagram asking where to get some soup.
“Everybody was like, ‘Oh, I don’t know, you can go to Giant Eagle.’ There’s no place that is just soup, so I made her some soup and took it to her,” McAlee said. “Then I started [@brothmonger].”
She sold mostly to friends until this past November, when she met Rick Sebak and told him about her soup. Intrigued, he bought her Clam Chowder and Vegan Lentil, then hyped her up on his own Instagram page.
“And I got like 500 new followers, and then it blew up,” she said.
Now, McAlee’s bisques, bouillons and chowders are gone by Monday night. She or her boyfriend typically deliver or meet customers at their homes.*
“It’s a hole I’m filling, I feel like there’s a gap in the market for [soup],” she said. “Pittsburgh has really great sandwiches and really great pizza and stuff like that already.”
For people interested in making soup, McAlee advises seasoning every step of the way and taste-testing throughout.
She isn’t sure which direction her budding broth business will go, though she definitely wants to “be more legit.” She’s currently talking with her former boss, Anthony Badamo, about using the kitchen in Badamo’s Pizza in the Northside. Her ultimate goal is to open her own cafe.
“Ideally, I would love to keep it in the Northside. It’s very neighborhood-oriented,” she said. “It has a lot of restaurants, but there’s still so much room to grow.”
* Editor’s note: This story has been corrected and updated to clarify that McAlee is from Pennsylvania, not Ohio, and to protect the subject’s privacy. 2/27/2020