David Ansel is happier than he's ever been and every bit as proud as any father of twins could possibly be. However, the twins he's excited about aren't actual babies. In the fall of 2014, Ansel added two very important components to his 13-year-old soup business – a full-fledged commissary kitchen and a sleek new retail store with both counter service for folks who would like to eat in, as well as food to grab and go. He likens the experience to that of having twins because delivering both outlets in the same time frame was a difficult but rewarding struggle, and both have enriched his life. "We had to have the commissary in order to supply the new store or contemplate any more growth, so they ended up coming at about the same time," Ansel explains.
Ansel's business has come a long way. In the beginning, his charming little neighborhood endeavor involved cooking up pots of soup at home and delivering them to his friends in South Austin from a cooler nestled in a baby stroller behind his bicycle. Folks found the soups and the business model appealing, and before long, Ansel had rented a small storefront in a funky old strip center on the banks of Bouldin Creek. As the soup business grew, he leased more space in the center, added more soups to the product line, and sent them to his hungry customers in colorful refrigerated delivery trucks. The menu eventually included soups, entrée casseroles, side dishes, salads, and desserts. The Soup Peddler became a vibrant part of the Austin food scene a few years into the new millennium, the subject of newspaper and magazine stories, television segments, and a cookbook titled The Soup Peddler's Slow & Difficult Soups: Recipes and Reveries.
Ansel's first foray outside of the original Bouldin Creek location (501 W. Mary) was a brightly painted kiosk at 2801 S. Lamar where soup lovers could pick up their favorite soups as well as fresh juices and smoothies from what was then the Daily Juice. The two offerings complemented each other and helped make both seasonal businesses more viable year-round, prompting Ansel to add fresh juices and smoothies to his main product line. The kiosk was also located near Amy and Steve Simmons' first Austinville development that included an Amy's Ice Creams, a Phil's Ice House, and the first Papalote Taco shop. The synergy of all that local deliciousness in one block proved to be good for everyone involved, so when the Simmons began working on the second Austinville near Cedar Park, David Ansel was one of the other culinary entrepreneurs they invited to come along.
Ansel found the idea of growth appealing for the company that is now known as Soup Peddler – Real Food & Juice Bar, but he knew the hard-used and dilapidated old kitchen facility at the original location could not sustain another busy retail outlet. This is the point where the twins began to gestate. "We started looking for commissary space and discovered this miracle deal on Craigslist. It was an old convenience store in far South Austin that had been turned into a tamale factory at some point. The owners were willing to build it out to suit a good new tenant," Ansel recalls. With all the enthusiasm of a new parent, Ansel describes how the building was gutted and redone with completely new plumbing, wiring, vent hoods, air conditioning, and refrigeration. He extols the virtues of the 100-gallon soup kettle, the two 40-gallon tilt skillets, and the blast chiller that makes it possible to chill soups more safely and quickly to extend their shelf life. "It's a perfect soup factory and the keystone for expansion into the stores. Now that we've been working in a facility that was actually designed to make soup and our other food items, I can't believe that we were ever able to accomplish anything in the other building. Our new chef, Ari Dvorin, and all the employees are in heaven. It's a whole new day for the business."
While Ansel admits that developing the commissary at the same time as putting together a new retail outlet on the other end of town presented some challenges, the successful launch of both entities already has him thinking about more expansion. The newest location (13219 Hwy. 183 N.) is distinctively different from the original retail outlet or the kiosk. It's a quick casual restaurant offering counter service with spaces to eat inside or out. The interior is very simple, bright and airy with concrete floors, and little in the way of decor. Fresh, clean food is obviously meant to be the main attraction here. According to Ansel, the Anderson Mill-area clientele has somewhat different culinary preferences than South Austin. They like more meaty soups – chicken and rice is the hands-down favorite – order less juices and smoothies, and devour grilled cheese and grilled turkey sandwiches. He reports there's regularly a line out the door at lunch time, but people are fed quickly, and the new store already outsells the long-established kiosk down south three or four days a week. Ansel is so happy about the new kids, he's contemplating another birth, possibly in Westlake Hills.
WORDS TO LIVE BY: DAVID ANSEL
“Well you’re in your little room and you’re working on something good but if it’s really good you’re going to need a bigger room and when you’re in the bigger room you might not know what to do you might have to think of how you got started sitting in your little room (la la la la la la la etc.) “Little Room” by The White Stripes
Soon after I began The Soup Peddler, I was cooking my soups after hours in a Thai restaurant downtown. At the time, I was listening heavily to The White Stripes’ White Blood Cells. The song “Little Room,” a raspy Jack White chant, struck me as a harbinger of what was to come.
Thirteen years later, the song has become the anthem of my personal path with The Soup Peddler, particularly in light of our company’s recent move to a new, pristine, incredibly equipped commercial kitchen. Very few food businesses are blessed to have such a long arc from very humble beginnings ($90 “initial capitalization”) to a relatively stable, mature age. The song has constantly called upon me to ground myself through the varied, often great challenges and changes along the way. That grounding recalls my original desire to study international foodways to create comforting, nourishing food (a sometimes difficult combination to find). Much like some companies have their mission statements, this sense of rootedness is my rudder for keeping The Soup Peddler moving in a righteous direction. I think because of that, Austin has been kind enough to reward us, to push us onward. I’m deeply thankful that we have been able to move into bigger rooms, just like Jack promised.
Excerpt from an email interview with the new Nothing But Austin blog... a bunch of old info for some of you, maybe a few intersprinkles of some new bits...
When you decided to end your career as a "profoundly bored" software professional, did you face any backlash or lack of support from friends and family?
They had grown pretty used to seeing my flounder around so I wouldn't say that was a terribly difficult stage. My folks gave me the great gift of a college education in engineering but weren't very heavy-handed in advising me to make use of it or tell me how to run my life. They were certainly quizzical about the soup peddling thing at first but after my stints at teaching yoga and freelance writing, it wasn't a real shocker. They knew I was very engaged in it and happy and proud so that was fine.
When you first started your business, you say you sent an email to your friends asking for $10 in exchange for soup on their porch. How effective was that? Did people laugh at you or embrace your quirkiness?
Embrace. Like any bootstrappy business, it began with friends, friends of friends, and friends of friends of friends. Basically the South Austin circle. People may ridicule the bumper stickers that describe the South Austin thing, but I have to say they're all true. People loved the Soup Peddler. It wasn't just kitsch, but there was really good food and there was really good writing to go with it and there was a sense of belonging to something insider and cool. Back then, it was a different culinary scene with zero avenues for someone with my limited culinary experience to make a go of it. So it was audacious in its way, like "hey, I'm going to work outside of the system and see if my blood, sweat, and tears can make this thing work." And people really felt that gesture, they felt my passion and energy and supported it. It touched a nerve quite dramatically so much that The Soup Peddler became a sort of folk hero.
Your name: The Soup Peddler is pure genius as you peddle to deliver soup and you're "peddling" (selling) soup. How did you come up with the name?
Marijuana. Smoking it, then sitting and thinking.
Were their other names you had before being called The Soup Peddler?
Yes, when I first started it, it was called the Soup Subscription Service by Savory Soul Sustenance. Believe it or not. But probably two or three weeks into the business I came up with the name. It took probably a half hour to design the logo, which hasn't changed since.
Do you have any ambitions to sell your soup in grocery stores or other retail outlets?
We are opening our own retail outlet with one of the founders of Daily Juice, it will be a nice Jo's Coffee-style kiosk on the corner of Lamar and Manchaca called Juicebox/Soup Peddler. I've been chronicling the development of that project at blog.souppeddler.com and it's a pretty interesting read for folks who are into entrepreneurship, design, or architecture.
When I think of your name "The Soup Peddler" and the way in which you deliver your product, I immediately think of a comic book superhero. Any chance you would develop a costume as uniform while delivering soup along the streets of South Austin? That would be interesting?
There have been many thoughts of caricaturization of The Soup Peddler character once I sort of separated myself from that legend. I wrote a slightly fictionalized book of memoirs that was fairly successful on Ten Speed Press, selling over 10,000 copies. There have been thoughts along the way of turning it into a screenplay, a stage production, an action figure, etc. But I don't really have a media department and I've been kind of busy with various things like my life, my family, my interests, and my business. Cool thing is (see attached file) the Zach Scott Theatre did a production some years ago called Keeping It Weird which was a stage play developed from the verbatim remarks of Austin luminaries and weirdos including myself. The superhero costume was derived from comments in my interview regarding tension living up to people's expectations of me as a local hero. The costume still lives in the props department at the Zach. Spandex is for the young.
You've gotten tons of local and national press coverage in print, online, and television. What's your secret to gaining so much press attention?
Do the work yourself. Serve up the story on a silver platter. Media folks are super-busy and it is very, very difficult for them to find content that is interesting, subjects that are honestly friendly and helpful. Of course much of it comes from having an interesting story, but that really comes from authenticity, being true to your passion and community. The other part is really doing the work for the press, knowing what their needs are and providing for them. The camera crews, the sound crews, the reporters, whatever... be really nice to them, feed them, ask them about their day, be real, be humble. It makes everyone's day go better.
You started your business with only $60 in your bank account. Were you afraid of failure? Did you have a Plan B? What motivated you not to quit with such great odds stacked against you?
Some people say that the greatest point of risk for a venture is Day 1, and it goes down as you go along. That's one way of looking at it. From a purely statistical point of view, yes, the odds of the business succeeding are at their worst on Day 1. But you have other weighting coefficients along the way like the amount of debt involved that change the magnitude of the downside of the risk. So in one sense, the risk was at its lowest when I only had sixty bucks and not a whole lot of heartache on the line. You can't forget the value of naïveté with regards to the entrepreneurial spirit: This is someone looking at a gorgeous sunrise while a raft of churning storm clouds are encroaching from the west. I'm saying I didn't know what odds were really stacked against me so I paid them no attention. I always say that if the me of back then came to ask the me of now what I thought about starting The Soup Peddler, the me of now would have laughed the me of then out of the room.
Most entrepreneurs in your situation who "put everything on the line"
work an insane amount of hours to get their business up and running. How many hours were you working to initially build your business and when did you become profitable?
It has always been profitable. That's the nice thing about truly bootstrapped, organically-grown businesses. There was a whole lot more DIY and sweat equity in this business than real equity funding. In fact, there has been no equity funding. For a while, I worked pretty darn hard. But after you achieve a certain point of scale, you're able to extract yourself to work solely on the business instead of both on and in the business. That's a much better arrangement.
Did you have any secondary form of employment to maintain income while building your business?
No. I didn't really require much income at the time. Just getting-by money. But I'm a big man now and a fully functioning member of the economy.
From all the press I've seen about you, you seem to take life so casually. What words of encourage can you provide for new entrepreneurs who are looking to break into business but fear the loss of stability from their 9 - 5?
Do the numbers. I ALWAYS have my business plan spreadsheets open on my laptop. I am ALWAYS looking at numbers. There was a database system years ago called Delphi. There's another biggie called Oracle. Get it? Databases and spreadsheets are meant to ANSWER QUESTIONS. Entrepreneurship is all about answering questions. Numbers answer questions. Fears are based on unanswered questions. Figure it out. I'm not trying to be opaque here, just honest.
South Austin is famously known for it's food carts/trailers, but you're the only company I know who delivers soup on a bicycle.
Er, uh... we haven't done that for about five or six years now.
Since becoming "The Soup Peddler," have you had any competitors? If so, how has it affected your business?
We've seen some competitors come and go, some trends come and go. Basically we're in the realm of restaurant alternatives. The whole thing where you would schedule an appointment to go "cook" or mix a bunch of pre-prepared foods together, like Super Suppers or Dream Dinners... that's gone. The trailer thing is a wonderful thing but I'm fairly certain it has passed its peak already. The Snap Kitchen/My Fit Foods thing is the new one. It looks pretty strong right now, it could work, or it could be a dead end. Nobody has really challenged us on the prepared foods delivery. It's pretty headache-filled, so it's a long row to hoe to get where we are with it. We are certainly not immune from competition, but we still seem to be surviving in an original little niche and supported well by our very very very well-valued customers.
Audio from a lovely afternoon in the garden and kitchen with KUT's Cecilia Nasti.
Apropos to the news that Splendid Table will soon ride the Austin airwaves, here's my 2005 or 2006 (can't remember) appearance on the show.
This fellow named Cliff Wildman came by and filmed a little piece on our business for a show called Austin Connoisseur. They did a fantastic editing job and it's just a little peek into our lives here at the soup shop.
Also, for those proto-Soupies and folks who are interested in the old days of The Soup Peddler, the original Soup Peddler documentary is now available for purchase here. Local filmmaker Lisa Kaselak filmed this one way back when and there's a new (now, more legal than ever!) score by composer Jake Scarborough. Only fifteen bucks. Fun for the whole family. Just in time for Columbus Day. Oh wait, just in time for National Boss Day.
Venison battle against the legendary Jeff Blank of Hudson's on the Bend at the 2007 Hill Country Wine and Food Festival... April Fools' Day and Passover Eve collided for this event
Rabid, tipsy Soup Peddler devotees crowded the main stage tent, pounding the tables with approval...
Ansel and Blank furiously tried to out-cook each other with the theme ingredient, venison... Chef Blank served tea-smoked, espresso-rubbed venison backstrap with beurre blanc... Ansel reached into his bag of tricks for the world's first venison barbacoa stuffed matzoh ball soup...
It was a humbling learning experience for the young, inexperienced Ansel...
But the crowd went wild for the reenactment of the little-known 11th plague visited upon the Pharoah, the dreaded walking matzoh balls.
The real winner was the crowd, who got to witness a fun and strange pairing for Mr. Blank, who is the Lou Gehrig, nay, the Cal Ripken of the Hill Country Wine & Food Festival, having performed every year in the festival's history.
Wine, food fair ends on sweet, sunny note
More than 5,000 soak up sun and grub as food festival winds down
By Kitty Crider
Monday, April 02, 2007
GEORGETOWN — South Austin Soup Peddler David Ansel and Hudson's on the Bend restaurant chef/owner Jeff Blank had a hokey, smoky smackdown Sunday afternoon, packing a culinary tent to standing-room only as the two popular cut-up chefs attempted to outcook each other with venison at the Texas Hill Country Wine & Food Fair in San Gabriel Park.
Ansel — wearing a khaki sports vest filled with eggs, spices, a pepper grinder, and a variety of spoons and tools, including a hammer — whipped up venison-stuffed matzo ball soup. Blank, in his starched white chef's coat, responded with a smoked venison tenderloin, rubbed with chocolate, ancho chili and coffee. He labeled it a "mochachino wrapped around protein" and smoked it in a stove-top box with wood chips and tea.
"It may smell like Willie's picnic," Blank noted.
The banter and cooking battle were friendly, though — and, at times, dramatic. While Blank flamed a sauce, Ansel went for South Austin drama with a lit sparkler stuck in a soup pot handle. The audience of 100 wine and food lovers cheered its approval.
I write this missive to you from the Ashton Hotel in historic downtown Fort Worth, TX. The city has a pleasing sense of clean history nowadays... no boot scrapers necessary at the doorsteps of the grand hotels anymore. I do still appreciate the accommodation of a boot scraper bolted to the front steps of a domicile, but of course I do not expect it. Incidentally, in my flights from Austin to San Antonio to Dallas to San Antonio to Dallas in the past 48 hours, the only airport that has boot jacks at the security checkpoint is the Austin-Bergstrom. Hear, hear. Everywhere else, I am forced to do the demeaning one-footed boot removal dance. Alas. I am travelling the airways of Texas to spread the gospel to the soup-swilling peoples of the "other cities" in Texas... specifically, the Central Market Cooking School Tour of San Antonio, Dallas, and Forth Worth. Houston would not have me back after last year's debacle, unfortunately. Their loss, I suppose. For some reason, I don't do well in Houston (and now, commence Houston-bashing).
I've been shuttling about to do promotional TV morning show spots to promote the classes (ineffectual, but good practice). The task at hand is to rub elbows, toss off some witticisms, and cook a batch of soup in 3.5 minutes, with two business-attired TV anchors at my elbows. As you may know, soup is a time-consuming task, and as you may know, starting up the warp engines on my pithy sense of humor is also time-consuming. But caffeine is a hell of a drug, and I believe, with the help of Daddy Starbucks, I was able to pull it off. Do the viewers wonder aloud if they want someone with that much hair flopping about making their soup? I do not know. You decide... please watch the San Antonio Living appearance here...
and the Dallas Morning Show appearance at your leisure...
But in the end, the Central Market classgoers seemed to enjoy themselves and the soup and the stories.
I arrived in Fort Worth via a hot rental car... it is a Pontiac Vibe hatchback. I had considered upgrading to the Mustang fastback, oddly my favorite new American car of late, but my sense of frugality got the best of me and I stuck with the temptingly-named Vibe. I drove to the clean and Western downtown and settled myself upon a barstool at the Flying Saucer, a welcoming beer hall. My barmate, upon hearing that I was from Austin, asked me if I had ever been to Sugar's, describing the various delights to be found there. I told him that I have, unfortunately (looking at my non-existing watch for comedic effect) been busy for the past eight years. The feller at my right, on the other hand, was intrigued by my visit and began sharing his passion for cooking and his Harlan County, Kentucky roots, and offered to share some recipes with me... Soupies of Austin may soon be sampling some down-home coal-mining country fare. We shall see.
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 delivery...so 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..
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
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.
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.”
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)
From the very short-lived "What's Hot/What's Cool" program...