Like most great ideas, Eric Ersher, the founder and CEO of Zoup!, let his newfound business idea simmer before taking it to the market.
Years ago, Eric Ersher got his start in the restaurant business by going through the back door first. As a spice distributor, Ersher was responsible for making blends for small restaurant chains. Then, one day, one of those restaurants wanted his company to make ready-to-use soup. Ersher was intrigued by the idea—after visiting restaurant after restaurant, he quickly realized two things: first, that really good soup was hard to find. And secondly, soup, when done right, has powerful intangible qualities that elicit feelings of comfort, warmth and well-being for people. So, Ersher leased what was formerly the kitchen of a closed-down General Motors auto plant in Detroit, and he and his chef got to work whipping up and testing hundreds of recipes.
Within a few years, after a painstaking trial and error process and scores of tastings, Ersher opened the first Zoup! in Southfield, Michigan in 1998—a location that is still open to this day.
“The focus from the outset was to do what we were doing really, really well and trust that the rest would fall into place. From the very beginning, Zoup! separated itself from the pack through our dedication to variety, innovation and the relentless pursuit of finding the perfect collection of recipes. Today, we have hundreds of soups. We serve 12 a day, and they rotate daily,” Ersher said. “And as people continue to be more adventurous with flavors than ever before, we also try to offer unique ingredients and unique flavors. They might not always be top-sellers, but it’s one of the major elements that keeps us relevant and interesting.”
Ersher’s concept was such a hit with guests that he eventually opened four more company-owned stores. By the early 2000s, he realized Zoup! had a strong enough foundation and a large enough following to grow beyond the original goal of five restaurants.
"When we first started, we were strategic about our growth plans," Ersher said. "It has been well-defined since the beginning, and we have stayed disciplined to not grow outside of that plan."
To grow Zoup! into a national chain, Ersher chose to franchise his soup shop in 2002. He contacted FranchisesForSale.com CEO Richard Simtob to draft a franchise plan—a process that took nearly five years to perfect. Then, in 2007, he made a strategic move, allowing Simtob to purchase a minority stake in the firm. With Simtob's expertise, the franchise growth ramped up. Today, Zoup has nearly 100 restaurants in more than 20 U.S states and Ontario, with even more scheduled to open in 2017
“Franchising was a great way for us to expand the company—not only did it give Zoup! an avenue to achieve our growth goals, but it helped others achieve their own goals of business ownership,” Ersher said. “There is nothing more rewarding than seeing people I’ve worked with ascend to a level beyond what they thought they were capable of.”
Backed by a strong concept, Ersher realized the need for an even stronger corporate culture to make Zoup! a company that leaders, employees and franchisees genuinely want to be a part of.
“There are a lot of organizations that pay lip service to creating a culture, and the CEO does not walk the walk. For us, it’s critical to work toward a common vision and the greater good of the company,” Ersher said. “Establishing a strong and deliberate positive culture was crucial in our formative years. It’s about clearly living your company culture day-to-day and bringing in the right individuals who are aligned with Zoup!’s values.”
Today, Zoup! continues to live out their emphasis on a positive culture to help the company and individual owner be successful. When a new franchise prospective arises, the individual works a day in the store and meets the corporate team to learn more about the company and their values. If they are approved, the corporate team will help them find real estate and then they will go through a 17-day training period where they learn how to run, operate and manage their own Zoup!
“For us, the most critical thing is finding the right franchise partners They get our culture and the brand. And they’re aligned from a value and desire perspective. That is really one of the great underpinnings of creating an exceptional business,” Ersher said. “We’re fond of the saying ‘numbers follow, they don’t lead.’ We’re not chasing numbers. Instead, we want to create a brand fueled by smart growth, and we want to be deliberate in what we do. It’s about longevity for us.”