by Greg Kohn
Has it ever occurred to you that you could sell a constantly rotating menu of freshly cooked soup over the Internet? It did to Sarah Polon, who seized the opportunity to call the innovative business “Soupergirl.”
Since 2008, Polon and her mom have been taking online orders for vegan and vegetarian soups that they cook up every day and then have delivered to homes and offices in the Washington, D.C. area.
In September, the duo opened a new “Soupergirl” cafe, a modern glass-faced store with extra room for eat-in customers, opposite the Takoma Metro.
But the big majority of their sales still comes over the Internet. Although the walk-in version is essentially kept separate from the cloud-based store, her preceding success inspired not only herself but the city that she could occupy the space more permanently than its previous owners.
“With a successful business up and running, a brick and mortar store was a logical next step for Soupergirl,” said Roz Grigsby, executive director of the Old Takoma Business Association, the group responsible for the retention and recruitment of businesses in Old Takoma. “It’s a little easier to predict the direction of a business when it has already started.”
The transition to a person-to-person front was not a simple translation of their online accomplishments, however. Without the specific pre-order numbers, for example, the store is forced to estimate how much soup to make. “It’s a totally different ballgame,” Polon said. “Retail is a guessing game – it’s really hard to predict the flow, so some days we don’t have enough and some days we have too much.”
Regardless of fluctuations in supply, the soups – which, as they are packed with vegetables and fiber and go easy on the salt, Polon and company emphasis continually as the easiest way to be healthy – have established their own local niche. One consistent group Polon said she sees is mothers, who seize the chance to fuel themselves and give their kids a healthy meal.
Having a real store, Polon noted, also encourages the casual soup eater to try Soupergirl, when they might otherwise be discouraged by the extra work of online ordering. For example, Cassie Meador and Ouida Maedel, two employees of the Dance Exchange just around the corner, have come after simply noticing the place. “I mean, we came back, so that says it all,” Meador said.
Not all potential customers are fans of the restaurant’s constantly changing menu however. Like their online offerings, Polon often changes the store’s soups based on the season and her own whims; even popular soups may not reappear for a couple months. “I see why some people may like that, but I prefer consistency in a menu, not consistent surprise,” Martin White said, a Metro commuter.
Nevertheless, Polon’s success in both the online and storefront models has her thinking of growing even more. Keeping the physical restaurant as a hub, she already has planned out more delivery zones and pick-up locations. Perhaps, Polon said, she’ll even add another store if the demand is high enough. Either way, she plans to continue to use each model as a way to address different audiences.
“I don’t want people to think that if they don’t live in Takoma, they can’t get our soup,” Polon said. “We really support the local community – we consider ourselves a neighborhood place – but the online portion allows us to cater to an even larger community.”