For the second time this year, I am writing about a Penn graduate who started a food business, changed her life, enlisted help from her family, and swears she is on a mission to deliver happiness to the world and dollars to her bank account.
The subject last March was Yael Krigman, the Type-A classical musician and Fulbright scholar who walked away from a six-figure job at a law firm to sell cake pops.
This week’s subject is Sara Polon, a University of Pennsylvania history major who calls herself Soupergirl.
Vegan Soupergirl Sara has me thinking I can add 10 years to my life if only I start eating her veggie Soupergirl soups.
In just a few weeks, she has turned me into a health-food dilettante. I have dumped my beloved Coca-Cola (although I still own the beverage giant’s stock). And I have been sending her photos of my breakfasts and lunches, showing the oatmeal and hummus I included at her suggestion.
I even sent her a photo of my grocery cart to show her I was buying Mary’s crackers, which she insisted I eat instead of Premium saltines (“Wasted calories. You get nothing for it.”)
“We are on a mission to change the world, one bowl of soup at a time,” said the occasional stand-up comic. “I do believe in the power of food to change the world.”
Polon believes in the power of making money, too. Soupergirl got a taste of profit when the business was in its nascent stage, and now she hungers for more as she weathers an ambitious expansion.
She and her 72-year-old mother, Marilyn, the company’s “chief anxiety officer,” own 87 percent of the company.
Revenue has nearly doubled from $1.5 million in 2016 to almost $3 million this year.
The company has two retail locations. Its soups can be found at 25 Costco warehouses and more than 50 Whole Foods stores, which make up about 60 percent of total sales. The rest of the revenue comes from Soupergirl stores and home deliveries.
Polon also pays leases at three locations. She has a restaurant/test kitchen in Takoma. There is another takeout location at Dupont Circle. The leases are her biggest cost. The next biggest expense is Soupergirl’s five full-time employees and more than 30 part-timers, who do everything from chopping sweet potatoes for winter chili to slinging soups at Whole Foods giveaways.
There is also a production kitchen north of Massachusetts Avenue (NoMa) in the District, where the soups destined for Whole Foods, Costco, Peapod and the home-delivery meals are prepared.
“I don’t do any marketing,” Polon said. “It’s all knocking on doors.”
Soupergirl pays herself only when the company is profitable. The winter months tend to be the most profitable because demand rises for hot soup and the cost of the ingredients is lower.
The flavors are unique and interesting: colorful red lentil butternut squash; creamy butternut squash miso; Mexican-style black bean, winter root vegetable chili and Indian style mulligatawny.
Polon is likable and ambitious. She told me her goal is to double sales in 2019.
“Nearly 40 percent of Americans are trying to incorporate more plant-based foods into their diets,” she told me. And there’s been a 90 percent increase in vegan-related Google searches in the past year.
This entrepreneur is admirably sincere: “Tom,” she said to me in an email, “the truth is I believe in this in a way that cannot be put into words. I am going to do it.”
She put it into words anyway: “With each bowl of Soupergirl soup that people purchase, they hopefully know they are making a good choice — internally and externally. We are far from perfect. But we are trying. Every single day.”
Polon may not buy ads, but she doesn’t pass up opportunities to hawk her brand. I mean, she called me! She also appeared on ABC’s “Shark Tank,” the entrepreneurial-themed reality show. She was turned down for a $5 million ask on funding.
“I am very glad I did not get the investment,” Polon said. “They are not food guys.”
Soupergirl grew up in Washington, where her mom was a speech pathologist and her dad a corporate lawyer who still practices.
Polon has always been a bit offbeat.
“When I was a little girl, people said they wanted to be a ballerina, a fireman or lawyer. I said I wanted to be a comedian.”
Her parents blessed her with a work ethic that is still with her today.
“My family doesn’t sit around and wait for things to come to you,” said the comedian/entrepreneur, who never takes vacations. “You work.”
She graduated from Penn in 1999 and went right at it, waitressing, working at Internet start-ups and escorting tours in Israel. She moved to New York to pursue a career in comedy, using some of her tour-guide experience as fodder.
Like many would-be entrepreneurs, she was antsy. Something wasn’t right. She felt lousy and was living alone in an apartment in Greenwich Village.
“I was going through a rough time. I had lost my way. Wasn’t happy. My cholesterol was too high. My weight was too high.”
Her big pivot came in 2008 after reading “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” by Michael Pollan. It, as they say, changed her life. The book is a critique of American agribusiness and people’s poor eating habits.
Polon began a diet and exercise regimen and started training for a triathlon. (She has done two and is a workout fiend.)
She moved back to the District and in the fall of 2008 began cooking soup out of a now-defunct Spanish restaurant in Cleveland Park. Soupermom came up with the recipes. The duo sourced almost all the ingredients from local farms, cooked the soups and delivered them to homes and offices.
Like most dreamers, Polon emptied her $12,000 savings account to cover the initial costs.
Press attention gave the brand some mojo, and by 2010, the souperduo had moved into a synagogue kitchen and started adding catering and farmers markets to the repertoire. By 2013, Soupergirl had two retail locations, Takoma and a downtown D.C. spot above a, ahem, gentleman’s club.
“The performers at the club would pay in single dollar bills and viewed the soup as a means to stay healthy and svelte,” Polon said.
One break came in 2014, when Polon persuaded the Georgetown Whole Foods on Wisconsin Avenue (which has been shuttered for more than a year) to carry her product. That led to an ambitious audition in 2016 for Costco, which took months. It was worth it: The company now sells tons of Soupergirl soups.
Scaling up came with a big price. Polon took on an $800,000 small-business loan to open a production facility big enough to fill $10 million in annual soup sales.
She has since reduced that hangover to a more manageable $550,000.
Whether it becomes the long-term profit center Polon is building toward is up for grabs. When I expressed doubt over the company’s life span, Polon said, “I am writing everything down and putting it in my journal. Then I am going to call you and remind you.”
She wants her company to change the way people live, just like it did for her — “one bowl of soup at a time.”