The Juicebox/Soup Peddler Project I

The Soup Peddler is a complicated man. Anyone who refers to himself in the third person, nay, with a superhero moniker, will tend to be on the complicated side. That is given. My particular complication over the years has been an inability to find a path forward for my company. This brand, this company, has been blessed by incomprehensible goodwill and support from the community. But on the flip side of every blessing coin is a paired curse. That curse has been our "business model." Let's discuss.

For those of you tuning in late to this program, I started The Soup Peddler out of my rental house in a really bootstrappy sort of way. A credit card purchase of $90 for a pot (no lid), a stirring paddle, a ladle, and some soup buckets. I needed to know how much soup to make so I took orders over email and cooked that much soup. That's how it was and that's how it still is. Order this week for next week. That's the model. The model has been much lauded... "Oh, you have no waste! That's what kills restaurants. You're a genius." "Oh, you have negative accounts receivable aging! That's amazing!" "Oh, you are using the Dell Computer business model for fresh food. How did you do that?!" "Oh, you don't have to pay rent for a dining room or payroll for a service staff or deal with parking issues! You're getting away with murder!"

But what most of these people don't realize is what most people realize: For most people, ordering from us is a pain in the ass. We are one of the most beloved brands in Austin, but we really haven't grown much over the past three years, despite our best efforts to keep improving our food and introducing new recipes. I believe it's because of the barriers our model sets between us and our customers.

When you're the first person doing something, you're either a genius or an idiot. If, after a while, you're still the only person doing something... well...

I always said, "The model is what keeps us in business." That's because, as much of a pain in the ass as we are, we are still a service. That service aspect is what keeps us in people's minds and keeps them supporting us. I've always been afraid to take that service aspect away, and that has guided my decision to always stay rooted in what we were.

Slowly, it's become clearer that something new had to happen in order for this business to thrive and move forward. Over the years, people had whispered many ideas in my ear... franchise, put it on the shelves, open in new markets, become a cooperative. Every idea has been unworkable for me for one reason or another. After a while, I began to feel stuck.

My baby girl was born in 2008, so that kept my mind off it for a while. Now that she tells me things like "I need privacy," and "Do your own ting, daddy," it's more than time to get back on that bicycle and ride.

Shift to a blustery February day in Austin. I'd been realizing that nothing interesting happens to a business owner while he's in the office looking out. So I went out. I stopped at Phoenicia for a falafel. I ran into Matt Shook, co-founder of the Daily Juice. We both sat at the little picnic table under the awning looking out at the gray mist, the cars swishing by on Lamar. We were both on the phone, looking like important businessmen. We hung up our calls, gave each other a look that said, "Look at us important businessmen, done with our days at 1:30, not knowing what to do with ourselves until we pick up our kids at day care."

Matt and I started our businesses at about the same time. They were both gritty little South Austin operations that were long on inspiration and perspiration, probably a little short on polish and planning. Each in our own way, we turned our businesses into institutions of a sort. Against the backdrop of the vigorous entrepreneurial incubation that Austin's food world has seen over the past five years, both Daily Juice and Soup Peddler have come to be seen as "old school" or "classic" Austin brands, each embodying a certain "weirdness" or individuality of its own flavor, driven directly by the personality of the owner.

On this particular afternoon, Matt was moaning about the weather. His business suffers a bit of Seasonal Affective Disorder like mine, but in reverse. I was happy because the rain and cold meant the orders were rolling in, everything was flowing, and payroll was taken care of. He was sullen because he hadn't taken a paycheck in a while and was supporting the business from his savings.

I told him, "I feel your pain... talk to me in August and these tables will be turned."

He said, "We should open a business together."

(to be continued)