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Episode 36: Selecting Foods for a More Sustainable Future

Sara Polon, Co-Founder and CEO of Soupergirl — a natural, plant-based, kosher, and sustainably sourced soup company — joins this episode of Change@Work. The comedian-turned-food entrepreneur and host, Chris Thornton discuss Sara’s journey to soup-making, the challenges and joys of being a small business owner in the food and beverage industry, and the role consumers play in creating a more sustainable and equitable future when buying packaged foods.



This transcript was automatically generated with artificial intelligence. It’s in the queue to go through a review with human eyes!

00;00;10;03 – 00;00;36;23
Hello and welcome back to Change@Work. I’m your host, Chris Thornton, senior principal here at Daggerwing Group. This week we’re talking to Soupergirl. Or as she’s more formally known, Sarah Polon. Sarah is a former comedian turned entrepreneur. In 2008, Sarah started the company Soupergirl alongside her mother and chief anxiety officer. At the time, Sarah began to see through the cracks of the food system and decided to make an impact by starting her own ethical fair trade company.

00;00;36;29 – 00;01;01;10
Since she kicked off the company, Soupergirl is now available in Costco, Whole Foods and even ships internationally. Her rise to success has not been a straightforward one, as she’ll tell us. Sarah has experienced many heartbreaks along the way. So here she is to tell about the ups and downs and Soup success of Soupergirl. Sarah Polon. Sarah, how are you?

00;01;01;12 – 00;01;28;28
I’m well. I’m very happy to be here. Thank you. How are you, Chris? You know what? Honest. Pretty great. My kids had a big, like, performance at school yesterday, and they really crushed it. They really, really crushed it. They’re going to do the second session tonight. Big songs. Big songs. I think a joy a parent feels when their kids succeed at something, maybe even without the outside assistance is, you know, you’re excelling, as we say, in Yiddish.

00;01;28;28 – 00;01;49;19
You Cavalli. I think I am Cavalli. I think I am. I think. I think. Just do it again tonight. Pure joy. Yeah. It is pure joy. As listeners know, we do like to get to know our guests. But with a name like Soupergirl. Come on. We got to start there. Yeah, we have to. We have to. And we’ll get into that.

00;01;49;19 – 00;02;14;03
And then we’ll come back and ask even more questions to get to know you about Soupergirl, girl. That’s so good. Thank you. I appreciate you saying that because I fight for it. Really? So when I first had the idea and the whole story, we can go into that or not go into it, but we’ll get into it. When I first had the idea and it was really coming together, we had to pick a name.

00;02;14;04 – 00;02;43;19
And I remember hiking with my my folks in Rock Creek Park here in D.C. and my dad really wanted to call it Sarah’s local suit, which is just not that doesn’t know. And then maybe a branding genius. No. And then might it’s accurate. My brother wanted to call it Rock Creek Soup Company. Okay. And my friends in New York asked if I was starting a construction business.

00;02;43;22 – 00;03;08;13
And then I wanted to call it bipartisan soup. And. No, because. No. Yeah. Yeah. And then it kind of dawn. It came to me one night and a lot of people were like, That’s corny, that’s cheesy. And once it came to me, you know, this was the first time I had to learn to trust my gut. Because we always want to question If someone says no, someone says totally.

00;03;08;15 – 00;03;27;21
And I just knew I could. I could see I’m not a graphic designer. I can’t draw a straight line. But I could see this logo. I could see the fun. And I thank goodness I did, because it’s actually really gotten us places. And the other thing is it allows consumers to connect with us personally. So we get emails all the time like, Hey, Soupergirl.

00;03;27;26 – 00;03;52;04
Hey, Soup mom. Yeah. And they know there’s a human here and that’s awesome. And I get to say things like, if we do something cool, I get to say to my boyfriend, like, Whatever, I’m Soupergirl, bitch. Sorry. And and I don’t really mean it, but it’s really fun to say is pretty good. It’s it’s instantly memorable. I appreciate that very much.

00;03;52;05 – 00;04;12;06
It is delightful. It’s fun. I just like saying that. Soupergirl. So we’re going to say it a lot on this episode of the podcast because it brings me joy. All right. Let’s get to know you even more. Do it. You’re in the food and beverage industry. I think that’s where we have to play soup. God help us. It’s right there somewhere in the food and beverage.

00;04;12;06 – 00;04;31;18
And it’s both, isn’t it? It’s a it is a beverage. There it is. You are in discomfort. It’s joy, but it’s food and beverage. Yes. What is your perfect meal? And I would even let you say what’s your favorite dish if you want to go there. my goodness. Why was I not? Well, I haven’t been asked that.

00;04;31;18 – 00;04;55;27
I’m always asked my favorite soup. And then I did a line like, I can’t choose between my children, but my perfect meal. You know, I am very simple and I love and I don’t eat it much, but I love like a big old bowl of homemade pasta with homemade tomato sauce. I just love it. It just makes me very happy, you know?

00;04;55;27 – 00;05;25;05
Fresh, big summer tomatoes like in August and fresh basil and just drizzle olive oil. And that makes me very, very happy. I love it. I’m with you. Carb tastic. What about you? man. There’s this chicken meatball Azania that I make. And it’s got this chicken you So just like this rich boiled down broth you cover and it’s got a base shamal.

00;05;25;05 – 00;05;48;07
And it really it’s so labor intensive, but it’s so worth it. It’s worth it. It is. And I know every time this is worth it, This is worth it. So I love it. Really been a lot of joy. We’re both describing comfort food. I think, you know, food can it can heal, It can provide comfort. It can provide more than just calories and nourishment.

00;05;48;10 – 00;06;12;12
And I think that’s what we’re describing. Yeah, I agree. All right. Another question and getting to know you can any fun milestones that you’ve experienced recently. It can be work. It can be personal. Yeah. This is our next month is our 15 year anniversary. Is it really? Congrats that you met. That’s. That’s it. That’s right. Yeah. Take in the food and beverage industry.

00;06;12;12 – 00;06;46;20
15. Yeah, that’s in Food and Pet for sure. But like any like startup. Just making it past what, three. Right. Yeah. And that’s huge. So get to 15. Congrats. Thank you. Thank you. I really appreciate that. Okay. You were once a stand up comic in your past life. Yeah. From standup comic to entrepreneur, that’s. I don’t know. I guess you are kind of your own business when you’re a standup comic, but was that like, what was that like getting into, like, officially a startup business?

00;06;46;21 – 00;07;11;01
What was that transition like for you? I don’t like to think things through. Okay, good. All of the best decisions I’ve made, I haven’t thought through because if you think through too much, you don’t do things. So you don’t. You just like I really. I like kind of remember ending up in New York, like my first time on stage would do it.

00;07;11;04 – 00;07;32;24
Like, how the hell did that happen? And with Soupergirl, same kind of thing. Like, I just knew at a certain point I needed to do this. I needed to get involved in the food movement. I have terrible problems with authority. I could no longer work for someone else. And so it was the same, just like I would say, like two months in.

00;07;32;25 – 00;07;56;24
I was like, What? What? How did I get here? And I keep what, 15 years later? But it’s the same. I just look, I, I don’t I’m very this is a strange thing to say and I don’t I’m very fortunate that I don’t have children. That’s not. No, I know what you’re saying. Yeah. I don’t have two other people.

00;07;56;26 – 00;08;16;20
You know, I take my roles in very seriously, but I’m able to take major risks. And so I kind of approach life like that. So it was really the same kind of attitude of just like, I’m going to I don’t care what people think, Yeah, I believe in this. I don’t want to take a traditional path. I never have.

00;08;16;22 – 00;08;36;27
Are there any transferable skills between standup comedy and running? my God. Yeah. Your business. Yeah. Yeah. So many. First of all, the ability to, you know, thick skin being okay, being able to be quick on your feet with, you know, you’re in front of investors or Shark Tank. We were on Shark Tank a couple of years ago.

00;08;36;27 – 00;09;13;05
You need to be quick on your feet and. Yeah. And so and also you have to find the humor in life if you’re going to make it as a business owner, especially in the food and beverage industry like because it is absurd and it’ll it’ll break your heart. So you have to laugh. I want to ask you a question, so maybe you don’t want to answer it, but can we talk about the heartbreak or like, is there a broken heart moment that you can share?

00;09;13;12 – 00;09;38;24
my God, there’s so many. Some I actually am not able to. Right, Right. Of course. Yes. My heart gets broken instinctively. But yeah. Yeah. Every opportunity that we’ve thought was going to be the game changer. Yeah, it was going to be the thing. This is the corner we’re turning. This is it. It never ends up being that way.

00;09;38;24 – 00;10;04;07
And there was one particular opportunity, a major retailer picked us to be part of their cohort of incubated brands. And I remember walking down the street on the phone with our chief production officer. He joined us in July of 2012. He’s like my family. He’s basically family. We we he’s like one of my first phone calls that there’s a crisis.

00;10;04;10 – 00;10;33;05
And I remember saying, This is it. I know we’ve been disappointed so many times, but this is it. wow. And it’s never been it. And that’s okay. It’s just you learn and learn like it’s always you just going to have to keep building organically and growing organically. And most likely, there’s not going to be this big event.

00;10;33;08 – 00;10;57;11
It’s going to be a series of smaller events, which in the big picture is the right way to grow. It’s just very hard and there is quite a bit of heartbreak involved. So we talked about heartbreak. Is there any joy? So much so, so much joy. I love this business. So I’ll tell you, as I mentioned before, I had an all nighter on Monday night.

00;10;57;11 – 00;11;21;29
We did get this huge order. It’s a new side of our business and it’s it’s a product we’re doing for a major retailer. And the orders came in three times the size of what we anticipated yet. Great. Like maybe. Yeah. So maybe this is the point, right? Yeah, except we weren’t paired. Right. And when I say I pulled an all nighter, most of our team pulled an all nighter.

00;11;21;29 – 00;11;43;07
Yeah. And we have this place. We’ve created this company where people will. Okay. Okay. The shit hit the fan. It’s on. Yeah, And we’re not leaving. And we’re not going anywhere until we get it done. And that meant starting at 7 a.m. on Monday and finishing at 6 a.m. on Tuesday. And we’re obviously not going to operate like that.

00;11;43;07 – 00;12;05;01
But it wasn’t even a question that people were going to stay and I was going to stand with them. I wasn’t going to be like, Guys, I’m tired, guys get this done course. And we’ve created a business where people feel safe, they feel welcome, they feel respected, they feel, you know, they get benefits. They just this is a place where we take care of our team and we’re creating something beautiful.

00;12;05;01 – 00;12;28;01
And I find such immense joy in that. Yeah, you got it done. We got it done and we got it done with a team of people that believe that’s hard. Well done. Thank you. That is Joy. Yes. We haven’t talked about your. So can we talk about your soup? Let’s talk about soup. Tell me about your soup. What’s going on?

00;12;28;03 – 00;12;49;22
Ask soup. These are all my mother’s recipes. So when we launched my mother, she took care of all of the warriors. I apprenticed at a couple of different kitchens because we knew how to make a pot of soup, and she was cooking nonstop to set up our initial repertoire of recipes. So we used she used to cook like four or five soups.

00;12;49;29 – 00;13;11;13
I would have people over, get their feedback, serve wine and croutons and get their feedback. And we developed this initial repertoire of soups that and then we had to learn how to scale them. But these are my mother’s recipes. So these and we still, even though now we’ve moved, we have a big manufacturing facility, it’s still handcrafted product.

00;13;11;19 – 00;13;35;10
It’s the kind of food that, yes, your doctor says you should be eating. It’s plant based, lots of protein, reduced salt, no funky ingredients, a lot of vegetables. But it’s so comforting and delicious. Our soups, I mean, we like to say from our kitchen to yours, but we really like it’s from our our love is put into the soup and we go so deep into our values.

00;13;35;10 – 00;14;06;18
Were the first food and beverage brand to get a fair food certification. We are trying desperately to help shine a light on the injustices in our domestic supply chain. Not enough people know about that and it is a massive, massive problem and we are working to build out our supply chain to ensure that the the vegetables that we’re sourcing from farms are farmed in a respectful manner, meaning the land is respected, but more importantly, the people.

00;14;06;20 – 00;14;32;28
And unfortunately, that’s just not the case in so many farms. Here. Are those the injustices that you’re talking about? Yep. Okay. Yeah. So I grew up in Indiana, surrounded by mold, grew up in a cornfield, and then surrounded by a particular tomato brand, which I won’t name because I don’t know the practices. So I don’t know. Tell me what type of injustices I would most likely see.

00;14;33;00 – 00;14;58;15
Maybe not at that tomato farm, but yeah. What are you going after? What are you trying to solve? On a very basic level, not enough access to water and shade and rest. That’s that’s the basic. Yeah, on a more extreme level, but it is very frequent stolen wages, slavery, sexual assault, and even murder. There was a full on slavery bust in the state of Georgia in December of 2021.

00;14;58;15 – 00;15;29;29
And that’s just scratching the surface. And people just don’t know. And it’s not that I don’t think people care. It’s just it’s so horrible. Right. And the Fair Food Program has they’ve set up standards that farms abide by. Fair Food Program got major retailers to sign on. And these retailers such as Walmart, Whole Foods, whole places like that, said, okay, we’re going to commit to buying tomatoes only from the farms that you certify.

00;15;30;01 – 00;16;03;24
Okay. So then the Fair Food program could go to these farms and say you’re going to get all this business, but you got to clean up your act. Now, there are other certifying agencies that try to do this, and they come in for an announced yearly audit, which is really not, you know, the Fair Food program. There is recourse, meaning there’s a 24 seven hotline that people can call and say, hey, this farm that I’m on that is certified has not paid me in a month or my manager was X, Y, Z.

00;16;03;27 – 00;16;21;23
These farms that they don’t clean up, that they will lose their certification and lose the business. But the most important thing is that recourse. You don’t if you if you come up with these standards in a corporate boardroom and once a year you come in check on them, it’s not really going to make a change if the very people who are working in the fields come up with the standards.

00;16;21;23 – 00;16;50;20
And those are the same people that enforce, you can start making a change. And so when I talk about joy, like this program we just brought in this week, like I don’t knows, like 20 pallets of fair food certified tomatoes. And I took pictures and I sent them to the Fair Food team in Florida. And they’re just like, this is you know, we’re another product with that fair food stamp on it and we’re going to raise consumer awareness and we have a long way to go.

00;16;50;20 – 00;17;16;27
But I really had profound joy at 3 a.m. standing with my team shopping Fair Food certified tomatoes in a facility where everyone had health insurance and just respect paid time off sick leave. Yeah, profound gratitude, really profound gratitude for where I am at our 15th year at 3 a.m. in the morning. Yeah, it’s, you know, you, but it’s doing good stuff.

00;17;16;27 – 00;17;45;15
You talk about in other interviews food choices to make change in the world. Yeah. Sounds like this is a huge part of that. It’s our risen trap. What else are we missing? When when you talk about food choices to make change in the world so consumers aren’t aware of the power that they have with each product, you you choose with each choice you make when you buy your food, you have extraordinary power.

00;17;45;18 – 00;18;08;01
So, number one, I encourage consumer to educate themselves about, number one, the Fair Food program and what’s going on, because this is, again, domestically speaking, this is we’re not even talking about what’s going on outside our borders. Right? When you choose a plant based meal, you’re helping to fight climate change. The association between meat and climate change is it’s pretty clear.

00;18;08;03 – 00;18;32;12
So you you can make that choice, right? And then when you you you start looking into when you’re buying packaged foods, do a little more research. Yeah. You might see a brand that’s $0.50 more. Maybe they’re selling tomato sauce or soup. Yeah, take the extra time to look at the back label, scan the QR code, go to the website and see, well, what is this business trying to do?

00;18;32;12 – 00;18;57;29
Because sometimes your purchase of one particular brand over another will help this brand that’s really trying to change things grow and and consumers. I just our goal is to make consumers feel empowered to be a part of the change They’re just and enjoy good food. But I really want consumers to understand why it’s because of consumers that there’s an organic movement, right?

00;18;58;05 – 00;19;21;01
That whatever you think of organic, that’s because of consumers standing up that, you know, I don’t I don’t like this spraying. I don’t like it, you know, and, you know, speaking with their dollars. So I’ve never had your soup. And now I feel bad, like I feel we just launched on FreshDirect. We just like, okay, All right. All right.

00;19;21;01 – 00;19;44;06
I know the FreshDirect people got it. I have an account when I pick up. What am I doing? What’s your container? My hold, no pain and my water. My coworker, Our gazpacho is in a bottle, a 12 ounce bottle. Okay. It’s like a juice bottle. So. Great. You’re just getting three servings of vegetables. You sip it. I mean, it definitely is amazing in the summer close you down, but it’s just a great way to get your veggies.

00;19;44;09 – 00;20;03;29
So deliciously. And then the soup. It’s in a little tub. Yeah. Do yourself a favor. Don’t eat it in the tub. You can. No. Okay, well, all right, put it in a put. If you want to use the microwave. Fine. Put it on the stovetop. Yeah. So? So it’s meant to stir it. Let the aroma fill the kitchen with you.

00;20;04;02 – 00;20;25;19
Right. Slowly. Heat it, stir it, you know, really experience it. We need to. We need to stop. As I did this on a call, just wolfing down our food. Yeah, we’re so fortunate to be able to leave in 2023. If you’re so fortunate to be able to have these food choices, enjoy them. Okay, guys. One of the beauties of life, it’s one of the great gifts of life we have in this world.

00;20;25;19 – 00;20;43;20
Such amazing food. Heat it up slowly. Take a sip. Close your eyes. Let it roll around your tongue, let it warm your whole mouth. And then when you swallow, you kind of feel your chest warm up. Yeah. And it’s like a hug. It’s like a hug. It is from the inside. That’s what I want my soup to do for you.

00;20;43;26 – 00;21;13;15
All right, Where can I get your soup? Well, at Whole Foods and that we’re everywhere in the Whole Foods. mid-Atlantic. You can get our gazpacho. okay. You can get us at Harris Teeter, Kroger, the Fresh Market, FreshDirect. They’ll do cheese. Those are the. And then from December through March. Costco, No. Yeah. Nationwide TBD. But at least from Boston down to Florida.

00;21;13;17 – 00;21;44;04
Guess where I live? Florida. No, Costco, you know, strike me as a Florida guy, you know, not today. Not today. Okay. God bless all of our Florida listeners. But now I think what I’m struck by and I work with several food and beverage clients, what I’m struck by is how motivated you are not to nourish people, but to empower them to take care of themselves and the world around them.

00;21;44;07 – 00;22;03;02
And is that an overstatement? Might be an overstatement, but I feel pretty comfortable saying that that’s exactly what we’re trying to do, and I’m really glad I’m properly communicating that after an all nighter, I didn’t do the all nighter last night. I know, but but I I’m glad to hear that because you’re picking up what I’m putting down.

00;22;03;04 – 00;22;30;11
And one of the things that we tend to focus in on as a as a team and as a practice is sustainability and helping companies figure out how to operationalize it. Tell me what you’re doing in the sustainability space, Steve, and is that what we should call it or should we call it something else? I find that the word sustainability is tossed around in a lot of boxes or checked for people, and there’s not real, I don’t know.

00;22;30;11 – 00;22;51;25
I’m same tired. I’m going to use a Hebrew word. There’s not a lot of covenant behind it. There’s not a lot of belief in it. It’s just checking the box. And I’ve had some trouble with some potential like values focus, investors that need to check certain boxes. And I keep bringing up their food and they’re like, That’s great, but what’s your GHG output?

00;22;52;02 – 00;23;21;00
I need the metric. Look, first of all, we’re a vegan company, so like our carbon footprint is, yeah, so though we are certified plastic neutral, we compost all of our thousands and thousands and thousands of pounds of our food scraps. So like that, is that the impact on climate change right there without putting food in a plastic bag and into a landfill, That is the worst thing you can do when we’re talking about food waste, It’s horrible.

00;23;21;00 – 00;23;47;00
But when you have like lettuce in plastic bags, that doesn’t get sold in time. Yeah. And it gets ends up in the landfill. That’s just the worst. So and then we have solar power on our roof. But we let’s be totally honest here. Our food is packaged in plastic. And for 15 years I have been begging Silicon Valley, Can’t someone fix this?

00;23;47;00 – 00;24;14;07
I don’t know how. Right, right, right. Plastic is cheap. Yeah, you know, it’s recyclable, but no one recycles them. And we can get the shelf life we need. It’s food safe. Yeah. Plastic is a miracle invention. And except for the horrors that it’s causing for our planet. Yeah, Yeah. And so when I tell you. Yeah, we do everything to be sustainable as possible.

00;24;14;07 – 00;24;37;11
But until we get out of plastic, we’re just not. We’re not there. And I hate it so much. Yeah, sorry. I just say you don’t need to be sorry. I think what you’re. What I’m taking away from it is we are where we are. But that doesn’t mean we have to like where we are. Yeah. And does it mean that we can’t keep trying for something better?

00;24;37;16 – 00;25;01;20
Yes. And maybe it’s back to, you know, with the organic movement, it’s because consumers ask for it. The more consumers say there has to be a better solution and I’m willing to pay for it. Sure. Actually, inventors get very motivated, right? It’s all right. Yeah. But right now, plastic so cheap people aren’t motivated. When you think about I assume you have shareholders.

00;25;01;20 – 00;25;25;07
Is that fair or not? Yeah. I mean, I don’t need details or anything. But you’ve got shareholders, of course. How do you help them reconcile profit purpose, lowering your carbon footprint? Are they all on board or are they okay? I’m very fortunate to have a board and investors that very strongly believe in our values but also want to make money.

00;25;25;07 – 00;26;00;03
We want well, yeah, I, I firmly believe that change is going to come first from the private sector and inventions and just ways to solve our crises will come through innovation. And then maybe government regulation will follow and nonprofits will get on board. And together we can hopefully kind of pivot the world. Yeah, but I want to show people that, yeah, you can run a profitable business and do really, really good work.

00;26;00;05 – 00;26;32;08
You don’t have to sacrifice one for the other, but it ain’t easy. I, I have loved this conversation. I have so enjoyed talking to you. Thank you. Is there anything else you want our listeners to know? Just support small businesses that are doing good. It might cost a little more, but if you’re privileged enough to be able to have a choice, yeah, choose wisely, understand your power, and take the time to learn about the brands that you’re supporting with your dollars.

00;26;32;10 – 00;26;59;20
Sarah Polon, Co-Founder and CEO of Soupergirl. I truly am headed out to Whole Foods this weekend to buy your soup. I feel compelled. Absolutely compelled. Thank you so much for this conversation today, Chris. Thank you so much for having me. You you ask wonderful and insightful questions in a really caring manner. I really appreciate your taking the time to interview me.

00;26;59;23 – 00;27;09;03
It was a real joy. Good. It was a real joy. It was a joy. Thank you so much. Thank you.

More in the Series

Chris Thornton is a Senior Principal and member of the global leadership team at Daggerwing Group. In his role, Chris serves as a source of strategic counsel for Senior Executives with client firms, advising them on how to help clients achieve Executive alignment, transform their cultures and equip and enable people managers to lead and embed change. An expert in the people side of change with both client-side and consulting experience, Chris has worked with leading companies including Nestlé, Pfizer, and GE Aviation to do change right and make it stick. He is also an active speaker on business transformation, a driver of innovation in Daggerwing’s breadth of change consulting services, and the host of Daggerwing Group’s podcast, Change@Work. Chris and his wife were featured in the New York Times for their love of pie.