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Homegrown Soup Company writes its own success story

By: Ken Cross | April 18, 2012

With 40 stores in 10 states, plus 10 or so stores in the works, Zoup! is carving a national presence for itself. But the company’s roots are here in metropolitan Detroit, and founder Eric Ersher remains focused on the company’s niche – great soup, salads and sandwiches.

“The focus was never about opening a bunch of stores,” Ersher says. “Numbers follow. They don’t lead.”

It all started in 1997, when Ersher owned a wholesale spice company in Southfield. Asked to create a ready-to-use soup for one restaurant, Ersher began to think more about the food category.

“We were in a lot of  back doors of restaurants,” he said. “It seemed as though soup was an after thought for most folks – a way to reduce inventory.”

Customer research told him two things he said. “Good soup was hard to find, and soup seemed to elicit thoughts of comfort and warmth and well-being.”

The niche opportunity – really good soup served in a “fast casual” atmosphere (the fastest-growing food service category) – was too good to pass up. After carefully developing recipes based on structured tastings and evaluations, the first Zoup! restaurant opened in Southfield in 1998.

Today, Zoup! offers hundreds of soups – all made in one location and shipped to the various stores – along with salads and sandwiches, which were added as the company grew.

Some popular soup choices are spicy black bean chili, chicken pot pie and lobster bisque. Daily soup choices vary at each location, but most have soups that cater to those with dietary restrictions. For example, there’s a vegan chili, a low-fat veggie waves of grain, a low-fat corkscrew chicken, and plenty of other dairy-free, low-fat and vegetarian choices, all indicated with symbols on the menu.

Each soup is served with a choice of sourdough, French or multi-grain bread, which is baked onsite.

Sandwiches and salads are also popular, Ersher says, especially during warm-weather months. Zoup! offers choices like Southwest turkey and tuna salad with lemon capers sandwiches, and American farm and chicken Caesar salads.

Zoup Trio

The try two combo runs about $7 and offers customers the opportunity to choose two items from a small portion of soup, a small salad or half a sandwich.

While Zoup! may be growing a little faster than Ersher expected, he says the growth has always been very controlled. “At the very beginning, we realized we were on to something,” he says. So the management team came up with a plan: five company stores to open in the first five years, and then the possibility of franchising in 2003.

“We grew very slowly and very deliberately,” he says. “We’re never going to be some huge 10,000-unit company.”

Zoup! still works hard on recipe development and product review, and maintains close contact with customers. The company receives about 35,000 daily e-mails, which are all answered within 24 hours, Ersher says.

Customers can also sign up for daily e-mails that include the day’s soups, and they can place orders and pay online for quick service.

As a leader in the fast casual restaurant category, Zoup! continues to fill a niche for customers who seek really good soup, along with good sandwiches and salads too.

Learn more about Zoup! at http://www.zoup.com/ or visit local restaurants in Southfield, Novi, Northville, PlymouthTownship, Pontiac, Troy and Ann Arbor.