This contributed article by Linda Yeh-Ostrinsky, co-founder of Soup Explorers, is a follow-up to a piece (published on April 7) about how the Chicago start-up was pivoting its business strategy to the “new normal” of the COVID-19 crisis. Her participation with business partner Debarshi Sengupta in the Good Food Accelerator (GFA) — and a support system of mentors, other Accelerator Fellows and advisers — helped them to navigate the initial weeks of the great disruption.

And this determination to push forward, despite the current uncertainties, has led to their announcement of a big new development: new packaging aimed at making their internationally inspired soup kits easier for consumers to store and use. Please enjoy and share their story.

When you are an entrepreneur who is determined to succeed, nothing will stand in your way — even a pandemic that has shut down much of the country for weeks. So even though the crisis is far from over, my co-founder Debarshi Sengupta and I have taken our boldest step yet to grow our young company.

We have just rolled out a major redesign of our packaging. We have been confident from the start that our fresh-tasting, nutritious, restaurant-quality soup kits — crafted in collaboration with chefs to reflect a variety of international cuisines — will find a big consumer market. And now we have made our products much easier to use, by packaging them in single-serving cups.

Our original packaging was a carton containing individual elements of the soup kit, which the purchasers combined. But we learned early on that our cartons were a little wide for retailer and home fridges, so we looked for alternative packaging to better meet their needs.

We received a big assist from master innovator Luke Saunders, CEO of Farmer’s Fridge, a company that makes fresh, healthy salads, sandwiches and bowls accessible 24/7 through high-tech vending machines. Luke, who is on the boards of Naturally Chicago and parent organization FamilyFarmed, suggested we investigate microwaveable cups, and this advice led us to find our new packaging.

The new cups are compact, easy to store and grab-and-go, which will be beneficial once we can all go out and explore the world again.

Soup Explorers, a Chicago Good Food start-up, adapted its packaging to ready-to-go cups in response to feedback that their original packaging — a bulky carton — was hard for grocers and consumers to fit on their shelves.

Making the Best of a Bad Situation

 Working at home, schooling at home, staying at home, and cooking at home have become the new normal as we work together as a society to beat this pandemic. How people shop and cook for themselves and their families have evolved to adapt to the new environment.

We, at Soup Explorers, knew we had a product that consumers would want, and is conveniently prepared in less than three minutes. But how do we get the word out, as a six-month old brand during a period when we can’t sample in stores?

Here’s what we decided to do:

  • We launched a local, online delivery service. We knew we needed to meet customers where they were, and they were staying home. So Debarshi and I now make contactless deliveries twice a week. Not only do we have a better sense of the Chicago neighborhoods, but also, we have genuinely enjoyed meeting new customers, many of whom were sick and tired of eating dried ramen and canned soup.

Pivoting quickly after the onset of the COVID crisis to a situation in which they needed to get their products to customers who were quarantining at home, co-founders Linda Yeh-Ostrinsky and Debarshi Sengupta began making deliveries across the Chicago area.

  • We offered family adventure packs online, consisting of four soup kits in different combinations. With names such as “What the Pho?” (pronounced “fuh,” to fully appreciate the pun) and “Globetrotting,” we thought families could add a little fun and a sense of international adventure with Soup Explorers.
  • We introduced soup & snack combo packs in partnership with fellow Good Food Accelerator cohort members: PREVAIL Jerky, to offer a Protein Boost Pack, and Chia Leah, a healthy snacks company, to create a Wellness Boost Pack for people looking for a little extra pep in their lunch.
  • We accelerated launch of our new chilled soup flavors, Moroccan Chilled Cucumber and Thai Chilled Mango, to offer new “destinations” for people to enjoy, especially since international vacation travel is limited this summer. These chilled soups were crafted in partnership with Saigon Sisters and Soupbox, our existing restaurant partners, to ensure a restaurant-quality experience. By harnessing cold pasteurization methods, we not only make the soups safe, but also are able to lock in the beautiful flavors and freshness for at least two weeks of shelf life.
  • We brought the community into our donation process. We have always donated excess soup kits and broth to local organizations, but kept hearing from our friends, family members and customers that they also wanted to support frontline medical personnel in some way. That was when we decided to organize sponsored donations with printed thank you notes from their donors to give to area hospital staff who often did not have easy access to fresh, nutritious meals.

Soup Explorers, which already had a program to donate surplus product, expanded it greatly after COVID set in. Here, co-founder Debarshi Sengupta makes a delivery to frontline health care workers.

The Road Forward

So far, the reception Soup Explorers has received from retailers and consumers has been extremely positive, and we look forward to better days ahead. We also remind ourselves of the advice our GFA Super Mentor gave to us early on, which is to envision the future and what we want our place to be in it.

Now more than ever, we need to connect with each other and the world around us, which has only bolstered our conviction in our vision to connect people to the world through food. Debarshi and I will continue to bring international flavors to you, and we are determined to continue innovating and pivoting to achieve this vision.

What’s next on the horizon? Follow us on Facebook and Instagram @soupexplorers to find out.