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Stirring the pot

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Published 2/20/2008

Zoup!'s Eric Ersher and co-founder David Elias feel that "soup has powerful and intangible qualities that provide comfort and promote a genuine sense of well-being for many people." That's why they've set out to provide varieties of fresh soup to please everyone's taste. With more than 100 daily-changing choices sold in nearly 20 locations, they have ably proved their point.

Metro Times: I love soup, especially in cold weather. Is yours a seasonal business?

Eric Ersher: To some extent, it is, but it's interesting. In many cultures and in certain parts of the United States, soup is a year-round thing. I was recently in Peru and they served soup at every single meal. One of our challenges is to remind people about Zoup! — not just as soups, but also sandwiches and salads — but also that people eat hot foods in the summer. Soup is a light meal. There are healthy choices, and it does suit a lot of people's lunch needs

MT: Do you feel that Michigan's economy has played a role in your in-store sales and in the sale of franchises?

Ersher: I would imagine it goes probably both ways, similar to how the economy affects us at the store level from a sales perspective. There are people who are trading down to fast food, but then there are other people who don't want to spend the kind of money that you have to spend at a sit-down restaurant that are trading into Zoup! So for us, we have not been affected. I would imagine that from a franchise perspective there's probably a similar kind of a shifting where there's more people who want to be in business for themselves, but, at the same time, there's more insecurity out there. So, it's a wash.

MT: How do you choose the daily dozen soups?

Ersher: Of the 12 soup wells, we specify which ones are vegetarian, which is chili, which is seafood, low-fat, dairy-free or spicy. We can be true to one of our philosophies, which is to offer something for everyone.

MT: What are the best sellers?

Ersher: Lobster bisque, chicken pot pie and lately we've seen a rise across the board in vegetarian soups.

MT: What are your personal favorite soups?

Ersher: I personally am a huge fan of variety. Lately I've been eating a lot of tomato, spinach and brown rice — and also vegetable with orzo and fresh herbs.

MT: I see the phrase "Everything Matters" on the wall. It sounds like a mantra.

Ersher: One of the things that we realized early on was that we were not in the soup business. We were in the detail business. The reality is this business is about thousands and thousands of details. There are so many uncontrollables that we have to control those variables we can. So we are very detail-focused. That's what makes a difference to people. For example, we do a four-hour orientation every month for all the new employees, franchisees and some existing employees. We make it fun and high-energy, so we get a lot of repeat faces. We talk about our story and our values, the "Zoupisms." We give real-life facts, circumstances and photos and really try to bring to life that which is at the heart of Zoup! When we first started Zoup! we were in the wholesale spice business and we were in a lot of restaurants' back doors. We saw what kind of soup they were making and it seemed that many of them were using soup as a vehicle to get rid of leftover chicken or peas or broccoli, and at the same we started asking around and the consensus was clear: that good soup — really good soup — was hard to find. Also we heard a lot of stories from people about growing up and "my grandma's recipe" and how it reminds them of home. We realized that soup, unlike any other food category, had intangibles. So our challenge in creating the Zoup! brand was to combine really good soup with the power of those intangibles that people often associated with soup in a nice environment.

MT: How have things progressed relative to your expectations?

Ersher: We're coming up on our 10-year anniversary in September of 2008 — and also my 10-year wedding anniversary in April. I better start planning for one of them, for sure! I don't know that I knew enough to have realistic expectations. I had hopes, visions of what the brand could be, but I don't know that I had enough experience to be able to imagine how it might unfold. That said, I'm very pleased with our success.

See zoup.com for more information.

Jeff Broder does this monthly food interview for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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