When Sara Polon was doing the rounds as a standup comedian in New York, her mom Marilyn would visit and stock up Polon’s freezer with single-portion home-made soup in a bag.
When the Global Financial Crisis hit in 2008, the comedy gigs dried up and the mother-daughter team decided to launch their own business: Soupergirl.
“Once I started diving deep into the connections between our food choices, and how much they impact our water, the air, the animals, ourselves and the community, and how complicated our food system has gotten, I really wanted to make an impact and make things better,” says Polon.
Despite never having run her own business, Polon’s “dogged determination” and “going with her gut” helped overcome challenges. “The way way I’ve overcome a lot of things that I’ve done in life and some of the best decisions I’ve ever made is because I don’t overthink things,” she says.
The business, based in Washington DC, began with a $640,000 small business loan and over the next decade Polon got Soupergirl’s all-natural products into retail stores including Whole Foods, Costco and Wegmans, initially by turning up with a bag of soup and relentlessly requesting to speak to the buyers.
You may not think that standup comedy skills would be transferable to running a vegan soup company, but Polon says her former career has been an advantage in helping the brand stand out.
“The name ‘Soupergirl’ is fun and gives people a chuckle,” she says. “It allowed me and it continues to allow me to get really creative when it comes to brand building, and finding that voice because I am Soupergirl and my mom is Soupermom. Because the brand is us we’re able to produce content that’s authentic.”
Roasted on ‘Shark Tank’
In 2018, Polon and her mom appeared on the popular ABC TV show ‘Shark Tank’ with the hope of securing investment from one of the Sharks. Instead they got roasted and walked away with no deal. Despite this, it was worth doing the show, as it had a huge impact on sales and brand awareness.
“We got to talk to millions of people about our business at a nationwide platform,” says Polon. “You can’t buy that type of marketing. Every time it replays, more and more people buy the soup, and it’s opened so many doors for us. A lot of times I’ll be able to get in the door to retailers because they know me from Shark Tank.”
Another benefit of being on the show was further media opportunities including an appearance on NBC’s ‘The Today Show’.
“When you pay for an ad on social media, people know that, so it’s not necessarily authentic,” says Polon. “The images and the messaging is all curated. But when you have the opportunity to be on television show, or a podcast, it’s live, it’s raw, it’s authentic. People genuinely want to tune into your story. And, it’s free.”
Impact of Covid-19
Like many businesses Soupergirl has faced challenges due to Covid-19. It lost its key successful marketing strategy: In-store taste testing and sample giveaways.
“It’s the best way to grow your brand,” says Polon. “If people can try it and touch it and see it, they’re more likely to buy it. So when you get your product into a new store, and you can’t do that, it’s very hard to get a consumer to pay attention, because everyone has habits; they know what brands they like, and it’s hard to get them to change.”
Despite the challenges, Soupergirl has refused to compromise on its values to make a positive difference to people, animals and planet. This includes looking after staff and customers by hiring a doctor to devise extensive Covid-19 safety protocols.
In 2020, the company ramped up its delivery program, not only locally in the Washington DC, Virginia and Maryland areas but to 48 states throughout the US.
“It’s expensive, but it’s a great way to introduce new people to our brand, pay attention to us and spend more than 10 seconds on our site to learn about what we’re trying to do as a business and get them to understand why purchasing from us is good,” says Polon.”
Covid-19 has not stopped Soupergirl from going above and beyond in its commitment to sustainability. It’s recently become plastic-neutral through its partnership with rePurpose Global.
For every product Soupergirl sells, it donates a percentage towards vetted programs that will remove and recover as much plastic waste from the environment as the company uses in its packaging and operations.
It also helps fund cutting-edge recycling innovation, support additional income streams for marginalized waste workers in India, and ultimately reduce plastic leakage into landfills and waterways.
However, Polon is clear that this is merely a step in the right direction rather than the end point. “I don’t want people to think that that we’re cool. with plastic,” she says. “We’re not. I consider this a bridge until we find a different container solution. I hope this is just a temporary fix until we can remove plastic from our systems.”
Investing in the future
While Soupergirl missed out on a deal on Shark Tank, Polon spent the next two years seeking impact investment from other sources to enable the company to expand its national sales. Last year it landed $2 million in funding from impact investment firm Arbor View Capital, and Seth Goldman, board member of Beyond Meat and founder of Honest Tea.
“It was like a dance for like a year,” says Polon when asked how she secured the investment. “It’s almost like dating. ‘Are they gonna call? Should we call? Are we calling too soon?’ Arbor View look for companies that are trying to make the world a better place, so it was a very nice fit. But even though your values are aligned, you’ve still got to go through all the financials and your your processes, so it’s extraordinarily time consuming to close a deal like this, but obviously well worth it because hopefully we’re going to keep growing.”
Polon’s standup comedy career may not have resulted in big dollars, but with Soupergirl, it seems she’s laughing all the way to the bank.
Katrina Fox is an award-winning vegan journalist, publisher, speaker, PR consultant and media trainer who teaches vegan business owners, entrepreneurs and change makers how to get free publicity by sharing their stories. Katrina was a regular contributor to Forbes for a year, writing about vegan and plant-based business. She is the founder and editor-in-chief of Vegan Business Media, the host of Vegan Business Talk podcast, and the author of Vegan Ventures: Start and Grow an Ethical Business. Katrina is also the creator of Vegans in the Limelight: Online PR course for Vegan Business Owners and Entrepreneurs, the founder of the Vegan Women’s Leadership Network and host of the Conversations with Vegan Women Leaders podcast. For more information and to hire Katrina, email her at katrina [at] veganbusinessmedia [dotcom]