Naturally Chicago is sharing the stories of entrepreneurs and brands who are innovating to weather the COVID-19 crisis. Here is a piece submitted by Linda Yeh-Ostrinsky, co-founder of Chicago startup Soup Explorers.

Soup Explorers is the emerging brand I co-founded with Debarshi Sengupta. We had already gained traction with our nutritious, internationally flavored soup kits when we were accepted into the Good Food Accelerator (GFA) for its current entrepreneur cohort.

We were confident we would gain significant mentorship during the intensive six-month development program — from GFA’s leadership team, Fellows current and past, our Super Mentor, and the broader network of amazing people who make up the robust GFA and Naturally Chicago communities. What we never could have imagined was the disruptive COVID-19 crisis hitting  just a couple of weeks after GFA’s 6th cohort convened in late February.

And GFA has turned out to be an even greater pillar for our business than we had any reason to expect. We are a very young brand and, just like every other business, we are trying to find our footing during this crisis and navigate through a “new normal.” We wanted to share some of our key learnings and actions. Hopefully, there are nuggets that help your business in some way, too.

Over the past month, GFA has helped us:

  • Clarify our Mission, Vision and Values: Spurred by workshop sessions with the GFA instructors and discussions with our Super Mentor, we emerged with a crisper, more impactful set of Mission, Vision and Values, and a renewed sense of purpose. We realized that now more than ever, we need to find ways to connect and empathize with each other and the world around us. Our Vision — “To connect people to the world through food” — bolstered by our Mission — “To create internationally flavored and nutritious soup kits that transport people instantly to destinations around the world” — has only energized us to persevere through some difficult days and find our true north.
  • Reinforce Our Values in Our Communications: Our GFA instructors counseled us, during this time of uncertainty, to plan carefully and be transparent in our communications to all our stakeholder groups. We want to reassure our consumers, retailers and business partners that we were open for business, and reiterate our commitment to maintaining rigorous standards in food safety. We also reinforced our commitment to our community by stepping up donations to local shelters and food pantries during this time of need. We focused our messaging by medium and audience, per the advice of our GFA instructors, and our outreach has been well-received by all parties across our @soupexplorers social media handles, email and in-person conversations.

    Soup Explorers co-founders Linda Yeh-Ostrinsky and Debarshi Sengupta participated in Naturally Chicago’s Winter Wellness Event January 30 at Vital Proteins’ Chicago headquarters. Photo: Bob Benenson/Naturally Chicago

  • Pivot the Business and Envision our Future in the New Normal: Just a couple weeks ago, we were at the brink of suspending operations. Our Super Mentor challenged us, though, to think of what the “new normal” will be once we all emerge from the current crisis, and what we would want our place to be. E-commerce and delivery services are on the rise, and we expect this to be valued long after COVID-19. While we were not ready to launch our e-commerce platform (coming soon though), we pivoted. Within 48 hours of the conversation with our Super Mentor, we found a way to work with a couple of our current retail partners – Saigon Sisters and South Loop Market — to piggy-back on their delivery platforms. We are starting to see traction on these two platforms and are excited to see where this new channel takes us.
  • Challenge Norms to Drive Efficiencies: Our GFA instructors pushed us to dig deep and identify opportunities to streamline operations and optimize cash flows. This is ever more critical during a time when many consumers are stockpiling shelf-stable items. In response, we redesigned production processes to allow for bigger runs while driving down operating costs. We also had the incredible opportunity to meet with Jenny Yang — CEO of Chicago’s Phoenix Bean tofu company and a GFA alumna — to source a baked tofu that significantly reduced our labor hours! (Jenny also is a board member for both Naturally Chicago and Family Farmed, its parent organization.) That action and other efficiencies we have identified will drive margin expansion as we continue to scale our business.
  • Reinforce the Notion That It Takes a Village: We have been humbled and blessed to have people help us through critical junctures in our business. GFA alums, board members, instructors and our fellow cohort members have answered our pleas for help not once, but several times, as we thought through our major packaging update and SKU expansion (to be released soon), financing options, and ways to drive trial and engagement during these unprecedented times. Our goal is to continue to pay it forward and be an active member of this village. Together, we will get through this and come out stronger as a result.

We at Soup Explorers wish you all the best and good health during these extraordinary times. We are all pivoting in some way to adjust to this “new normal.” Even our in-person GFA Accelerator classes were moved online without skipping a beat, thanks to the tremendous work of the GFA leadership team. There is a lot of ingenuity, perseverance and compassion around us — and we try to remind ourselves to celebrate it when we can.

ABOUT SOUP EXPLORERS:

Soup Explorers creates internationally flavored and nutritious soup kits that instantly transport people to destinations around the world. We partner with local chefs and leverage emerging food technology to lock in freshness and flavor, providing delicious, authentic experiences that go from package to table in less than three minutes. Soup Explorers is currently offering three flavors: Vietnamese Chicken Pho, Vietnamese Vegetable Pho and American Chicken Noodle Soup, which can be found at local Chicagoland stores. To learn more, please visit soupexplorers.com and follow us on Instagram @soupexplorers.