Eric Ersher got his start in the restaurant business by coming through the back door, first with a spice business, then a wholesale soup business.

“I saw what kind of soup they were making, and a lot of times it was an afterthought—a way to use leftovers,” he says.

So Ersher began asking people questions about soup and came to two conclusions: Good soup is hard to find, and people connect soup with thoughts of comfort, family, and well-being.

Those two discoveries led Ersher to create the Zoup! brand.

“The focus from the outset was to do what we were doing really, really well and trust that the rest would fall into place,” he says. “When we talk to franchisees today, we still tell them that numbers follow. They don’t lead. We don’t want to chase dollars, but do what we do really well and let the rest fall into place.”

And Zoup restaurants have indeed fallen into place, in 37 locations in nine states and Ontario. It is now adding stores at a rate of 12–16 a year.

Each Zoup restaurant has 12 soup wells. One hundred soups rotate through the stores.

“We cook our soup at a central location in small batches using our cook-chill process,” Ersher says. This means when the soups are done, they are cooled to less than 40 F in an hour to stop the cooking process. The soups are then delivered to the stores, where they are brought back to temperature and served. The rotation of soups is managed centrally.

Soup is available by the 8-ounce cup, 12-ounce bowl, quart, or gallon and ranges in price from $3.95 a cup to $6.95 a bowl and about $45 a gallon. About half of each location’s sales are carryout, and Zoup also caters for groups of 10 or more.

“People really enjoy our seafood soups,” Ersher says. “And our Spicy Black Bean Chili is very popular. Plus we’re always introducing new ones.”

The 100 varieties also include: Corn & Crab Chowder, Vegetarian Split Pea, Chicken with Roasted Garlic, Lobster Bisque, Chicken Potpie, Twice-Baked Stuffed Potato with Bacon, Lentil with Sweet Onion & Barley, and Zesty 3 Pepper with Chicken.

Zoup! Fresh Soup Company

Founder/Managing Partner: Eric Ersher

HQ: Southfield, Michigan

Year Started: 1998

Annual Sales: Undisclosed

Total Units: 37

Franchise Units: 34

When the first Zoup opened in Southfield, Michigan, just outside Detroit, in 1998, soup was the only thing on the menu. Eventually salads, and then sandwiches, were added.

Today, the Try Two! combo meal priced at about $7 invites customers to pick two of three offerings—a cup of soup, a half salad, or half sandwich. It is a popular meal option, Ersher says.

Sandwiches at Zoup include the Classic Grilled Cheese, a Turkey Club with Swiss, and Tuna Salad with Lemon & Capers. Salads include Cobb, Caprese Green, and Loco Burrito—a Tex-Mex creation made with grilled chicken, mozzarella cheese, tomatoes, red onion, roasted corn, black bean salsa, guacamole, and tortilla strips on a bed of romaine lettuce.

“Our main point of differentiation from other places is that we have really good soup,” Ersher says. “But sales of sandwiches and salads continue to rise.”

All soups are served with what Zoup refers to as a “hunk” of bread. The customer can choose among sourdough, French, or multigrain breads, all of which are baked on site.

And for customers who can’t choose among the day’s 12 varieties of soup, Zoup allows sampling.

“People seem to be interested in all things culinary more than ever before,” Ersher says. “Sampling allows people to try flavors or recipes they wouldn’t necessarily order. And we always want to make sure people end up loving what they order, so sampling is something we encourage.”

Ersher says he is aware of the consumer’s ongoing interest in healthy eating and the dietary restrictions many people have.

“By virtue of our long and ever-changing soup list, we can accommodate their desire for healthy options,” he says. The menu always offers selections from what Zoup calls “Something for Everyone” nutritional categories, including vegetarian, dairy free, gluten-free, and low (Weight Watchers) points.

An average Zoup location is 2,000–2,200 square feet, with seating for 45–50 guests. Most are in-line strip-center locations, but a few slightly smaller stores are located inside regional malls or in office buildings.

Zoup’s site-selection standards require a high-density, white-collar daytime population.

“It’s a higher-end build out because each store must be consistent with the warmth and comfort that’s a part of brand,” Ersher says. “We are very aware and conscious of the experience that customers have at a Zoup, and we recognize that the environment is a big part of that.”

The company is looking to grow westward and expand into Colorado, Montana, Illinois, and Indiana.

“We try to find owners who will be a great cultural fit and add to the long-term value of the Zoup brand,” he says. “We’re very rigorous in our franchise development process.”

Despite being rigorous, Zoup management does have a sense of humor, which they demonstrated by making a video with Larry Thomas, the actor who played the notorious Soup Nazi character on Seinfeld. The two-minute promotional video concludes with Thomas pointing his finger at the camera and delivering the line, “Zoup! For you!” as only he can.q

Emerging Concepts, Growth, Story