Interview With Jesse Bloom (pre-Ecstatic Cuisine)

How did you get started with Soup Peddling, So tell me where it all began? It began on my porch, I used to live in this awesome house in South Austin rented a room with this porch overlooking the city, I was living beyond my means because I didn't like working and I guess I got sick of “working for the man” and doing meaningless things withy my one and only life... I wanted to break out and try something, I had too much security in my life. I had just come back from Africa and I was feeling like, Man this really is a golden land and should be able to do whatever the fuck you want. And I should be able to take a chance and try something and it was kind of tired of not contributing something, and just being a player in the economy, money really passing through me and not really doing anything, so those were the kind of thoughts I was having. And that was what led me to not really want to work but of course the problem was paying rent and things like that and I had credit cards and was taking to the habit of charging my rent which is not a very sustainable practice. I had been doing yoga teaching and freelance writing, which wasn't really working out, at least financially. Those are long roads, and a sort of desperation move I was down to less than a 100 bucks in my bank account and I had this passion for cooking always and I was feeding it at the time, through these communal dinners that we would do for the Jewish Sabbath and that was my first introduction to food for lots of people, and witnessing community around food and that richness and the slow food lifestyle. Just the power of food and culture and started thinking about those things and cooking more and decided “Hey, maybe I can make a living making food. So I sent an email to my friends and neighbors, anyone withing striking distance: “Hey, I'm gonna make some soup, Its gonna be a gumbo, vegetarian, it'll be 10 bucks and I'll bring it to you on my bike. And It'll be reusable containers, so it will be like the milk man. I found this really nice containers at the restaurant supply store and you'll leave your empty one out and I'll take it and leave some soup. It'll be like the milkman—each week I'll bring you a new one and that was were the trouble began.

You know I didn't have the name Soup Peddler then, it was called Soup Subscription Service by Savory Soul Sustenance and within a couple of weeks I had the real “stoned moment of my life where I was like peddle... soup... “soup peddler” and I figured that out. So I'd never even set foot into the back of a restaurant, anything close to trained- never been in a restaurant, never even waited table. Had no idea about food cost, about how it works, you know the hurdles that were ahead of me. Now you know, when someone comes to talk to me about food, business, getting started.. I”m just like your crazy, do you have any idea of what is in front of you. And I end up talking them out of it. And luckily I never really... Luckily my first mentor in business, one of the owners of Thai Passion, he this really gentle, amazing angel with a broken wing, and he totally believed in me, he had no doubt that this would happen, and he saw the magic in what I was doing, the pure insanity of what I was doing. And him being in the restaurant industry and knowing what those hurtles were about and I remember he brought me into Thai passion and how this thing works and how to scale up recipes and free rent and got onions out of the fridge and he taught me how to cool things down.

Who was it?

Joe Rubio. He was a very community involved character in the late night crowd subset of Austin. I remember one time he, the first time I made crab soup. I mean my favorite soup is crab soup, coming from Maryland yunno, and I didn't not know what it was like to make 25 gallons of soup, at that time that was a big deal for me. And know we do 25 gallon batches like (snaps fingers), and so I got a bushel of crabs and and brought them to the Thai restaurant and I'm using all their little Thai steamers all stacked up to steam these blue crabs and all the Thai guys are freaking out and its a real Maryland thing to do a bushel of crabs, and he's just standing there on the side, looking at me hes' like “ kind of impressed by my naievete, that I thought I could do that and then packed that shit up and put it on the back of a bike and drag that shit all around South Austin, all the hills, you know its hot as shit out its pretty hot out, it was insane. But I was like a literal burning flame. Those first 3 years, a burning, on fire, my engine was, it is hard to explain I was expending so much energy.

When did that start?

The first season when I started it out of my house and moved to Thai Passion was February 2002. until July. And i took a couple of months off and started back up again at Lambert's . The second season began at Lambert's and he was my second guardian angel, and he was a way different character and taught me different lessons that was the following October to June. And then we can talk about the next phase of getting my own place.

I met you when you were at Lambert's? At what point did you know that you “had something” when were you like “I”m going for this?”

Well from the very beginning it was just pure desperation pure financial desperation, I'm just going for it and I went down to Ace mart and bought a big pot and a paddle, and I was like the inside joke there at Ace mart. Like, “Okay, here's your pot and here's you paddle, and they were like hey do you want a ladle?” and I said, “Yeah give me the biggest ladle you got,” and I was the joke around there until I hired away one of their managers the guy who is now my GM. Yunno it was funny, every weekend they were like you counted I sold 90 gallons of Matzah ball soup. They are all restaurant managers so they could do the math. They were like man, Jesus Christ he's selling the shit out of that soup. So I wandered in there, desperation from the beginning, I started with 90$'s after the first season, the Thai Passion thing, Yeah I'll do this thing again. Man I”m gonna have to do my own fridge, and I have to have my own fridge and that's like 800$, man that's a lot of soup, So you know, I'm kind of getting in deep and I'm not sure if this is gonna work out. And so I got all fridge and all the accoutrements for the season. and then the movie happened and the press started happening. And that was a really magic, a Golden time, the myth making part. And, very very rewarding. As far as alignment with my ethics, environmentalist stuff and community stuff, it was at its peak. Literally everything got delivered by bicycle, literally everything got composted, it was all vegetarian, there was no trash. Buckets were all reusable. From where I was sitting it was like “this is a pure business” over the course of the season I probably didn't throw a dumpsters worth of trash away.

That was at Lambert's right? How many people were you serving soup to?

100 subscriptions. I only had so much kitchen time and storage space.

At some point you made the transition—recognizing that “I need my own space,” and you needed to do a more, pragmatic, formal “business plan” type approach. When was that?

That was right at the end of the Lambert's thing. Because I moved out of Lambert's, I moved out of there with my bike, Went away for the summer again, to figure it all out and how to do it. I came back to town; “I've got to find a place.” How do I get all of these numbers out of my head and make it work? In other words, How do I make a business plan? And so I started putting together a spreadsheet, how much does it cost for rent, employees, so I worked up my first P and O, showed it to Lou Lambert, and he was very helpful and Joe Draker at Maudies' and he was very helpful at the time, and so you have to raise money, take it around to people, show it to friends and family. Obviously, a bank isn't going to believe that whole story. So I finally found a place, where I am right now. I'm walking by it every day going, Man that place has got to be going out of business soon. And one day I'm walking by there and I'm like “Marcus, dude what's happening?” “Oh, I'm glad you came by. We're thinking about, well, yunno, pairing down a little bit here.“ And I said, “I want the space, I want it for myself.” And kitchen spaces are incredibly difficult to come that are at all affordable. And especially this one that was perfect for me because I didn't need any dine in and I didn't need any street sidewalk, street presence, so I didn't have to pay for any of that. “Man, 1500 a month, and 1500 deposit and I have to get a 2000 range, and a tilt skillet, and a walk in and a steel tables and a pot rack, sinks and all this shit and where am I getting all this money?” And finally, really befuddled, sitting in my bedroom staring at the trashcan and there are these convenience checks, the ones that are 3.99% cash advance, So I called like 10 times to find out what the catch was. And there like, no, no catch, as long as you pay your bill one time it will always be 4% and so I wrote a check to myself for 20,000 put it in my account. And within 3 weeks was chopping onions and making soup. Meredith was helping me chop onions. I had no employees...The size of the financial risk wasn't that great but the actual risk of, is this going to be here, is this going to exist and work risk at that level was at its highest then. So that was a pretty big leap of faith. Since then there have been pretty large leaps of faith, bank loans now and a lot of crap.

So basically your start up capital was 15 grand for your rent, and everything to get your kitchen all set up and that was basically on a credit card?

Yup, and it was open in 3 weeks. I had very good luck or Grace. Everything went really smoothly. Like with the permits, It was like historic that some jackass could get a kitchen open, with some jackass electrician who wanted to talk about his feelings and a salvaged pot rack that was a piece of metal from my back yard bolted to the ceiling. Go to these equipment yard and dealing with someone who was leasing me equipment who looked at me and was like “I don't know if I should be going to the trouble of leasing you this equipment.” And now he's made so much money on this walk in by now. Years later I'm still paying the same lease on this walk in and I could have bought it several times over by now. People took gambles on me and it worked out. And inspected in 3 weeks.

So now you've taken it to the next level, in terms of investments in bank loans, in vehicles, in staff...At some point you had to make decisions about how your were going to do things that were compromising that absolute, pure pure business that you were talking about. When did that start to come in and what was that like?

Its been an evolution. When we first got into the new place, to this day we still recycle a lot of stuff. We were still doing the buckets, pretty much all bike riding, but we started adding cars pretty quickly there... and started seeing our position in the whole food supply chain. Heretofore, I had been groceries from different stores, and now I was getting deliver trucks and i was starting to see a little bit of futility of what i was doing, and the bike thing had a nice symbolic effort to it. And I knew it was a purely symbolic effort from the beginning but...I started seeing it from all sides. All the customers where driving to pick there stuff up. All the food was coming from fields thousands of miles away and the bike thing slowly started eroding the importance of it. I knew it was very important symbolically a lot of my prestige was owed to that part of the story but i felt like that the way this business was evolved with a kind of screwed up model with the routed that we have a really efficient routed so even with the trucks we needed that efficiency. So there are always these people clamoring o get into the soup thing. And so they would all drive down to pick up soup. And I was like You know I can just go up there, its like 10 or 15 people who would drive down every week from Hyde Park. And I could just go up there once and do all that, right. And So that is a better efficiency a more sustainable approach and I started seeing, whittling away at the bike because I started seeing myself as a part of a bigger thing so while it had a great and heroic and motivating symbolic value it was actually shooting ourselves in the foot sustainability wise. Likewise the containers, they were an awesome symbol of waste not, want not and getting people to connect with the waste in their lives and getting them to think about stuff like that. It was a really beautiful part of the business. But what was happening was first of all we were driving ourselves washing the buckets. First of all there is an inefficiency there, washing the buckets all the soap, the health department really didn't like them, and they would come across the country on trucks too. And they were these 12 buckets took up this much space and they each came in their own box...and I was starting to see the cracks in the whole sustainability of that whole approach> and i was trying to figure out a new system, a new packaging system that would be more sustainable., there is always give and take and what we came up with was the bagged soup thing. Which was much more sustainable from an energy perspective. It helps us cool the soup, we bag things hot, an energy efficiency and also a health concern and it's really not romantic. When I was first giving customers these bags of soup it was really gut-wrenching. When we first got those trucks the refrigerated trucks which were obviously better, more efficient than loading ice into the back of my Subaru, there was a part of me that was really hurting inside that we had this garish trucks, and the bagged soup, and it was kind of sad to me that these strong symbols were going away but the reality was, what I was doing was more sustainable. And on top of all of that I got a lot of grief, the headline on the front page of the Statesman was Soup Peddler Inc, another Austin institution changes to meet the times. And it was really brutal and I got a lot of heat form customers like 'sellout” like Dylan going electric kind of thing, the fallen hero thing. It was really weird. It was a very very difficult time which kind of threw me into what was kind of a depression in combination with some other factors.

When was that going on?

A year ago. All the sudden we had trucks that were branded, and I felt like people where begrudging me my success. Oh, Austin's changing, were losing ourself.

Yeah, like the Austin veteran's syndrome “it's not what it used to be.”

Yeah, you know your right it's not, its way the fuck better now! And so that whole story was how the super hero character in the play came about. This deflated hero, depressed, that was what was happening, some other shit. I brought someone into the business to help someone grow it and there was a like a lot of shit. Was coming down from a magical magical phase and coming into some reality and business stuff. And there was a lot of risk a lot more money at stake

So it was growth at the cost of, a whole lot more investment, capital risk and you were making some choices that people where talking about.

Yeah everybody was talking about it “what's going on?”

And there was a business partner that didn't work out?

And ended up legal, It was just...We've grown into ourselves, we've gotten good at what we do, and we made it through the summer. It was always a seasonal business and we made it through our first summer and that was pretty freaky and everything is rolling, things are just going. I just go there and direct the culinary vision, fly on the wall and make sure that we are doing the right things.

So your roles have really changes a lot?

Yeah I haven't been cooking full time for probably two years.

It strikes me that...there is this whole idea of having this business that is a reflection of who you are in the world and there is a separation and a cleavage and it seems what I heard was that when you were making the changes from the meta-viewpoint that that was really impacting for you, on the personal level. So my question is how has that evolved for you and how has that happened?

Yeah, there is always a bit more separation happening. Its a bit complicated because I am the soup peddler, and the soup peddler is a business so there is two incongruous thing. But I've been separating myself ever since...first it was like getting myself out of the kitchen and getting people to chop onions the way I wanted them to, and then writing recipes and then it was getting chef and then a GM and constantly putting people. And then there is a shame period of moving away from the work. At first it was hard to have an employee at all. To have people doing stuff for me, working hard for me. I've gotten over that and it was quite an evolution. And there was also guilt about who am I? what am I doing? I'm not a cook, I'm not meeting the people, I'm not the happy neighborhood guy, I don't know everyone's house anymore, I don't know the customers. I don't know who the dogs are. I used to keep track of all their kids names and dogs names on a spreadsheet. You know who am I? And what am I really doing? And is this really rewarding for me? And stuff like that. Still trying to come to terms with all that stuff, is the business a reflection of anything anymore.

What does the business reflect now?

In the past, I kind of came out of my blue period. I've come to gain a lot of pride and see business for what it is. And entrepreneurship for what it is. I feel like its a really amazing business, and it really tries hard and it really wants to be, and you know you want to live, and be human You have to worry about external, like the customers, but really you know a lot about internal, What kind of company do we want to be? What kind of feeling, what kind of communication do we want there? I don't want it to be corporate, I want it to be human scale. I've always wanted that. One of the things, there was some corporate feeling kind of creeping in and it sucked so you know that is all gone now and its a happy little south Austin businesses.

You said you see “business for what it is” now, What does that mean?

Its a way to provide a living for people, essentially. Obviously for me, I want it to be worth something, to do something decent. And I think we do a bunch of really good things. And on a grand scale its not a really successful business because it doesn't provide a living for that many people.

We have 10 or 12 employees now. You don't build a business to be under its heel for the rest of your life. The reason you build a business is for freedom. The reason I didn't want to be a guy in a cubicle. I wanted more out of my life, more in charge of my own life, more time for myself. So that is why I went to all that fucking trouble and took all that fucking risk and so now I 'm more comfortable saying that now. I don't want to be a slave to this business and I don't want anyone to so trying to keep everyone...

So what does that look like in terms of what I would call “sustainability” So what does that look like in terms of the jobs, and the internal dynamics, the communication style of the business? How are you implementing that?

Those are still works in progress. We are just getting to the point. We've just recently gotten to some stable job descriptions. We are a small company so there is a lot of cross-over. Just this year we documented the customer service position. I am the IT department. The kitchen works in a totally new way and those guys basically..

...self organize?

And I brought those guys in, with the intention of, “Hey, you guys know this way better than I do.” I made it work but we did well but your guys know how restaurants run and how kitchens run and how to staff kitchens and how to tap a vein of Mexicans and bring them into the kitchen culture and you know even for them it was an immense challenge. Because its a really bizarre model about what we do in comparison to a restaurant

Like what?

Well restaurants package there food in the small intestines of their customers and we have these spikes in production, and we have to cool all the product and store all the product and the trucks have to be routed and it needs with software to be exported and the kitchen needs to export their software. It is the most bizarrely IT intensive business for its size. It never would have happened, there is no one doing this, we are probably the most together prepared food delivery business in the country, I swear to god and its really hard and, we got it all working now

How much of that do you think could be changed or could be made better by having a space that was specifically designed for it?

Well we have kind of, we finally got our space organized for it. At first it was fucked up and now we have a packaging room, we could use some more refrigeration because of the spikes in production that I was talking about, Building a church for Sunday kind of thing. The church is empty 6 days a week but you have to have this huge... It all happens Sunday. It's kind of like that with our place in certain ways. There are also advantages to what we do task ware wise, Because we take the money online ahead of time we know how much to make,

so no waste?

Well, that's hard. But we've gotten to the point where there is very little waste, and we have the money before we buy the shit, which is kind of the reverse of restaurants. There are some fundamentally cool things about it. It all kind of grew out of the necessities from the very beginning. It all grew out of the beginning, knowing how many people wanted soup and then getting that amount of stuff. It is basically like Michael Dell building computers.

Yeah, its just like Dell's computers with soup.

Yeah and that is how he took down the behemoths... Was by not carrying any inventory, by doing just in time production and selling online and getting the cash flow ahead of time. Pushing his suppliers back...We don't have enough power to push our suppliers back much but its kind of like that, same sort of necessity. Instead of building PC's out of a dorm room we are making soup

Do you have other practices with your staff, things that you are proud of in terms of employee option plans, how you are paying them, flexible schedules, or anything creative happening there?

No, pretty standard trying to pay people as well as you can. We have health care which is bizarre and nice for an embattled little company. We have, that's basically it. We are trying to get to the point where we are more generous.

Jumping back to the initiation of the “blue period”. You talked about catching a lot of grief. Part of the value and hook of the soup peddler was these heroic gestures, the biking, the packaging, that was got people to buy in. So, then there was a shift when you stepped back and made decisions from a larger vision of sustainability. How would you change or redirected that sense of value to the customer? So what are you doing now to give that value to your customer? The energy went somewhere else...

Well a lot of it went into expanding the menu. That was the big bet, that hey yunno people eat more than soup and honest to god I'm pretty sick of soup and I have some other creativity that I want to get into other types of food and a lot of the energy has gone into that. There has always been a community aspect, a creative writing aspect, a performance aspect, those things I'm still trying to work on. The community thing has changed, you know I try to be a part of the neighborhood and this and that, but as it's grown we had to create an abstraction on the community stuff Now we do a 5% kickback to various non-profits around the community. They send customers to us through a special portal and there supporters and on a quarterly basis we kick back the 5% to them. Its a marketing effort, so we can do more if you help us out more. And so I'm doing another performance at Boggy Creek in a couple of weeks on the 15th. We are just trying to be...I don't know if you get the newsletter, you know its like tales from South Austin, tales from the Soup Peddler make you laugh make you cry.

There is a ton of creativity in what you are doing...

Just trying to imbue, to make it rich.

Its a many textured thing, a lot of layers of flavor in what you are doing.

Thanks man.

Getting back to what you are doing, after having not seen what you were doing for a while, it really was really, like “Wow!” It really strikes me, it especially strikes me as inspired.

There are people around the country, marketing experts, lecturer types from around the country that subscribe to my list and read all my shit. Its really strange. I've become like this marketing savant, a lot of people think. Its pretty pure you know. Even before I started doing the soup peddler bit i was teaching yoga and doing a yoga newsletter and I'd write like my feelings about different poses and my experience and how i related it to music in my life and different stuff. And people read the yoga newsletters and passed them around. And there was a soup history from the first week. That was intentional. I wanted it to be educational. Challenging the palates of the customer. Next week we are launching a Ramadan menu: in the middle of something Texas, we are doing an Iraqi soup, a Palestinian dish, a Tunisian soup, an Algerian soup, a Moroccan stew, and its risky, its nervy. And we are still trying to be real, and be passionate.

That's awesome. I think that is the thing that gets me, I'm always weaving who I am into what I'm doing and I think there are some personality similarities, and I'm always doing some performance stuff just because it's who I am, and I'm writing all the time and I see you weaving all that stuff in and I'm like “cool, man.”

It's fun.

I don't know what I”m gonna do but I know its gonna be like that...

That is the only way, I really feel, to move yourself forward. Like I was at this Whole Foods thing, with the vendors. And I was at these little breakouts with these vendors with all these marketing people. And I was like—there job is to breathe life into life-less brands and create stories around brands that have no story. The most story that any of these companies have is... “This is my mom's recipe, she was a really good cook. Here's mom, say “hi” to the camera.” Whereas you can do something so much richer. You know the guy who does the feasts out in the fields...

No, I don't know about him.

Oh my god!

I can't believe I don't know about him

Its called...something in a field. They go around the country in a bus---and they set up a big table.

Oh man, i've had this exact same idea...

They.. I know they're burning, I know what they are feeling, they are glowing, burning human beings. I feel like I'm past that. I'm not that guy anymore. I'm putting more of my energy into my marriage and home, and I love seeing that. There's dumb luck, there's desperation, there's passion and pure expression has to be behind it because I know one of the things I experienced early on was doors like slamming open in front of me...there was a vacuum in front of me sucking me forward and a crowd of people behind me pushing me forward. That sense, and honestly at the beginning, you have to, it helps to be naïve, and not really know about the money, and not really know about... people can sniff that. They used to get this plane white bucket and there was just this different feeling to it and now all of the sudden with the bags, there are these labels with the brand and the bike and it was branding and the website was nicer and it was a different arrangement of pixels and they sensed there.. Oh my god there is a profit motive here! Most people aren't entrepreneur's and you have to take yourself back to that mindset of “oh I'm a customer,” to picture what they are thinking. But they are very sensitive, and they don't know how business works, what goes on behind the veils but they are really sensitive to that shit. And people really do want to support passion and you are doing something you are so passionate about that you end up getting help from these unexpected corners because your enthusiasm opens up all of these doors because people are responsive to your enthusiasm, you brighten their day and they want to do something to connect to you and they might open a door for you to someone else and it is just this chain reaction kind of thing. Whereas if you are like at a business meeting, mixer for small businesses and everyone is there to...its cool... everyone is like your trying to make money and I'm trying to make money and there are plenty of ways to make a living doing that and I'm not sure that that is what you are after. Unfortunately, there is a dissonance between creativity and, the passion is going to come from one side of the brain and the stuff about the survival of the business is going to come from the other and there is a dissonance there. And that is just something that you will have to come to grips with.

Sweet talk. Thank you so much. I feel like I could talk for another ½ hour. But I've got to go. And I would love to talk to you again.

One thing I definitely wanted to...(end of tape)