There are no hell-raising friends going squirrel-hunting in Sissonville, W.Va., no three-way hookups in hot tubs on the Jersey shore. And no one named Honey Boo Boo.
There are, however, exploding chickpeas.
Welcome to what may well be the D.C. setting for the next hit reality TV show: Soupergirl.
It’s an unlikely one: a bright Takoma cafe that serves health-conscious kosher and vegan soups. The concoctions have complex flavors and quirky names such as Jamaican Me Crazy Sweet Potato Soup, whose ingredient list includes orange and lime juice, coconut milk, curry and dark rum.
The would-be stars of this not-yet show are Soupergirl, a.k.a. Sara Polon, and her mom, Marilyn Polon. On a recent weekday afternoon the pair were circulating through the restaurant filling crouton bowls, taking orders and reminiscing about the previous day’s “chickpea catastrophe” and the smell it left behind.
“There’s always some drama going on,” says Soupergirl, rolling her eyes. Sara Polon is also a stand-up comedian: She has bright hazel eyes, straight brown hair and pureed sweet potato on her jeans. She almost always smells like onions.
“I personally don’t like reality shows,” says Marilyn Polon, who has a booming laugh that belies the nickname — “CAO” or “Chief Anxiety Officer” — bestowed by her daughter.
“Well, I don’t even own a TV,” Soupergirl, 35, chuckles.
The idea for a reality show was born when Michelle May, founder and owner of Womin Media, a McLean-based company that markets “women-centric” content for TV and new media, heard from a mutual friend that there was a place in Northwest Washington that served “insanely healthy soup made by a comedian who calls herself ‘Soupergirl’ and has a Jewish mother!”
If that’s not a made-for-TV premise, what is?
The potential for reality-TV-style tawdriness in a show about a mother-daughter soupmaking team may seem limited — and that’s May’s point. “We wanted to make a positive reality show about women,” she says. “Maybe our society is craving something that’s not catty or mean-spirited. I hope it helps spur the conversation about the direction of reality shows right now.”
This winter, May filmed Sara Polon in the restaurant’s Takoma kitchen amid 40-gallon steam kettles filled with squash and 50-pound bags of red lentils. May followed her as she sold her soups at the Dupont farmers market and as she did her stand-up comedy act at the Pinch club in Northwest Washington.
May used the footage to produce teasers and promotional videos that she’s marketing to networks such as Lifetime, TLC, the Hallmark Channel and the Food Network. She’s also exploring turning “Soupergirl” the show into a series of “Web snacks,” or short Internet episodes.
The Polons hope to get a boost along the lines of the success of TLC’s “DC Cupcake.” That show, which follows sisters Sophie LaMontagne and Katherine Kallinis as they run Georgetown Cupcake, contributed to the country’s cupcake craze, and its first-season finale racked up 1.5 million viewers.
May’s hope is that the “Soupergirl” show, when and if it happens, will be more comedic — sort of like “Seinfeld” meets soup. May says the format was inspired by the banter of George Burns and Gracie Allen.
Sara Polon does traditional, self-deprecating stand-up bits, mocking her attempts at online dating, her “Jew-fro” and the number of chemicals she uses to defrizz it, and, of course, her Jewish mother.
“Part of the benefit of working with my mother is that I get daily reminders to pluck my eyebrows,” she quips.
The show has at least one fan in Hollywood. Sara Polon’s triple ginger butternut squash soup recently caught the attention of Ari Emanuel, one of Hollywood’s most storied agents and co-chief executive of William Morris Endeavor. As the story goes, Emanuel tasted her soup on Thanksgiving at his brother Zeke Emanuel’s Cleveland Park home.
Zeke Emanuel, a bioethicist who helped first lady Michelle Obama develop her Let’s Move Initiative, also advised Polon on her soup’s nutrition guidelines. (Mutual friends introduced them, and Polon asked him for his input.) He served eight quarts of her soup at his holiday meal.
“I’m a huge devotee of Soupergirl,” Zeke Emanuel says. “I told my brother I made everything else in the meal but the soup. I love to cook, but her stuff is so good that I just get her stuff. So Ari immediately said, ‘We oughta do a show on Soupergirl!’ ”
(WME confirmed that it was working with Soupergirl and Womin Media, but could not comment on “ongoing negotiations.”)
The mother-daughter team coalesced five years ago when Sara was brainstorming business ideas. A friend reminded her of how her mother brought Sara coolers filled with amazing soups — such as chickpea rosemary stew and bulgur lentil tomato stew — when she was broke and doing stand-up in New York City. Sara, a vegetarian, wanted to make locally sourced soups that were “fabulously luscious but really healthy.”
Her customers would say she succeeded. “I was honestly really surprised at how good they taste,” says Laura Wingo, 38, a teacher who brought her two toddlers to the restaurant for lunch last week.
After its 2008 inception, Soupergirl quickly expanded from a delivery service to a 1,500-square-foot cafe. Business continues to boom. The cafe just added 1,250 square feet and will soon host live performances. The Georgetown Whole Foods starts stocking Soupergirl’s soups next week. And Sara Polon just signed with the Carole Mann agency to write a cookbook.
But on this day, Soupergirl and her mother are busy coping with a shortage of soup containers, a health-department inspection of their newly expanded space and a surprise visit from their rabbi.
Wearing a hoodie, a yarmulke and his iPod’s ear buds, Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, 38, who leads Ohev Sholom: The National Synagogue in Washington, wandered in to check whether the place was keeping kosher and pick up a couple of Soupergirl’s salads: Moroccan carrot and wheatberry root.
“I was once asked to be on a reality show — I am not kidding, ‘Survivor’ wanted a rabbi,” Herzfeld says. “But I said no. Plus, I don’t really watch TV.”
After the lunch rush, Sara Polon and her mother collapse into the store’s green Emeco chairs to eat bowls of North African lentil chickpea stew.
“We made it,” Marilyn Polon says.
“We lost 150 pounds of chickpeas in a borderline disaster and survived,” Sara Polon says, laughing.
Would that be a good plot line?
“Sure,” she says. “At least, TV viewers wouldn’t have to smell them.”