The Strange Coincidence That Connects Sleepless In Seattle To Seinfeld

The line "no soup for you!" remains one of the most beloved quips in television history, spawned by the 116th episode of "Seinfeld" in which the gang encounters an ornery chef in his no-frills (yet delicious) soup kitchen. Dubbed the "Soup Nazi," this man had a reputation for ruling his kitchen with an iron fist — often coming down on customers like George or Elaine for not following his authoritative protocol. Yet "Seinfeld" is not necessarily the originator of the character, nor the first prominent piece of media to reference this man. Two years before the Soup Nazi would become notorious from his stint on Seinfeld, a similar personality was referenced in none other than the Nora Ephron film "Sleepless in Seattle." But where did this concept of a tyrannical soup vendor come from, and why was he such a focus of the New York comedy scene in the 1990s?

Meet Al Yeganeh, The Real-Life 'Soup Nazi'

Predictably, the reason why this hyper-specific soup-monger pops up across two different pop culture staples is simple: he's based on a very real person. Ali "Al" Yeganeh ran a popular soup counter in Manhattan (simply named International Soup Kitchen), which was well-known among locals and tourists alike for his knockout homemade soups — as well as his cantankerous temper. In fact, he was colloquially referred to as the "Soup Terrorist" well before "Seinfeld" decided to cheekily alter his name. Though there's no denying that his original nickname was overtly racist considering Yeganeh's Iranian roots (ultimately substituted for the somehow more neutral "Nazi"), it's clear that New Yorkers weren't going to let a coarse interaction come between themselves and a piping hot bowl of artisan soup.

It was demanded that patrons stand in a single-file line, making minimal conversation except for a clearly stated soup order. Customers that dared defy Yeganeh's simple requests were swiftly told to exit sans soup, their money refunded in full, and sometimes even banned from the establishment. Few were deterred, though, namely because the restaurant's hearty concoctions (the crab bisque especially) were unrivaled in all of NYC, some devotees shelling out $30 per pint of Yeganeh's famous soup to stock their fridge — and perhaps avoid an additional brusque encounter with the disagreeable owner.

Originally highlighted in a 1989 New Yorker profile, Yeganeh quickly became a cultural ambassador of NYC — but he quickly found fame via parody to be an outright burden. Yet when his impact resulted in several outposts of his soup kitchen being established in NYC and other North American locations, it was equally heartbreaking when the franchise, now known as Original Soup Man, ended up shuttering in 2017 due to the company's chief financial officer's arrest for tax evasion.

His Depiction in Sleepless in Seattle Versus Seinfeld

Obviously, "Seinfeld" is largely credited for bringing the character of the Soup Nazi into the cultural lexicon, and there's no denying that his portrayal on the show is by far the touchstone for Yeganeh's caricature breaking through into the mainstream. However, Nora Ephron deserves a lot of credit for bringing the character up in her 1993 film "Sleepless in Seattle," which despite its title does, in fact, briefly take place in NYC during the film's climax.

Earlier in the film — which stars Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks as ostensibly star-crossed lovers — Annie (Ryan) brings up a story she finds worth pursuing while in the Baltimore Sun's newsroom, where she's employed as a reporter.

"This man sells the greatest soup you have ever eaten, and he is the meanest man in America," says Annie. "I feel strongly about this Becky, it's not just about the soup."

Likely hinting at Yeganeh's newsworthy New Yorker profile, this one line of dialogue is never expanded upon to become an explicit plot point in the film. However, it does foreshadow the presence of New York later on in the film, when Annie and Sam (Hanks) fatefully meet at the top of the Empire State Building.

In the season 7 episode of "Seinfeld" that premiered in 1995, two years after "Sleepless," the Soup Nazi character is conversely the basis for the entire plot. Jerry, George, Elaine, Kramer, Newman and one of Jerry's flings all have their own distinct interactions with the Soup Nazi, ranging from amicable (the ever-aloof Kramer) to downright hostile (Elaine's one-year ban, which wackily culminates in her gaining possession of the tyrant's horde of divine soup recipes). Of course, this is also where the "No soup for you!" line is used liberally as a punchline, particularly when George gripes about not receiving a complimentary slice of bread with his turkey chili.

The Soup Nazi's Legacy

The Soup Nazi has remained ever-relevant, undoubtedly cemented in the annals of pop culture history due to his depiction on "Seinfeld." But Yeganeh was quick to denounce this portrayal, resulting in a cast visit to the International Soup Kitchen in order to try and extend an olive branch. Allegedly, Yeganeh was shocked to see Jerry Seinfeld himself standing in the restaurant, and immediately began telling him how the show "ruined his life." According to "Seinfeld" writer Spike Feresten (who penned "The Soup Nazi" episode), Seinfeld approached the counter and gave Yeganeh "the most sarcastic, insincere apology" imaginable. Somewhat understandably, Seinfeld was immediately kicked out of the shop, and Yeganeh has continued to assert that the show has brought him nothing but trouble.

Yeganeh's TV avatar, actor Larry Thomas, was much more fortunate. He was nominated for an Emmy for his performance as the Soup Nazi in 1996, and though he ultimately lost to Tim Conway, it validated the impact of his character — not just in the NYC-metro area, but arguably all over the world. Though Yeganeh's soup empire has somewhat dissolved since its post-"Seinfeld" height, there's still a kiosk in Times Square that serves up steaming cups of soup — yet without the piquant attitude that made the franchise famous.