Certified B Corporation SoupCycle is out to recruit soupetarians with organic soups and a sustainable-minded business model.
STORY BY KERRY NEWBERRY
Maybe you’ve noticed? For many companies, the way they do business is changing. It’s not just about the bottom line; people are pursuing business as a force for making a difference and making a profit. Leading this charge is B Lab, a nonprofit organization dedicated to “using the power of business to solve social and environmental problems.”
As part of their revolution, B Lab provides a framework and certification for companies wishing to benefit society as well as their shareholders. Once certified, companies become part of a global community of B Corps, joining a professional network dedicated to transforming the way business works.
What are B Corps? “B Corps are for-profit companies certified by the nonprofit B Lab to meet rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency.” Or, as B Lab’s website further states: B Corp is to business what Fair Trade certification is to coffee or USDA organic certification is to milk.
Edible Portland is excited to highlight our local food and drink B Corp companies and share their stories of how they are using business as a catalyst for change. We sat down with Nate Schlachter, owner of Soupcycle, a company delivering healthy, nourishing meals to hungry Portlanders around the city – all by bicycle.
Can you run a financially viable, pedal-powered food business? In 2007, Jed Lazar and Shauna Lambert asked that question while pursuing their MBAs in Sustainable Business from Pinchot University (formerly the Bainbridge Graduate Institute) on Bainbridge Island, Washington. Avid cyclists and passionate for soup, the pair incubated a two-wheel-inspired business idea over the final year of their graduate program.
In 2008, they tested their concept in the Portland market, cycling homemade organic soup to seven close friends and neighbors. The first grassroots delivery was a success and led to the creation of SoupCycle, a weekly meal delivery service based on scratch soup powered by bike. Since that first day eight years ago, brightly clad bicyclists have pedaled over 200,000 deliveries of organic soup across Portland — weather be damned. They cycle soup rain or shine.
“The element of the bike is a key differentiator for us and sets us apart from other meal delivery services,” says current owner Nate Schlachter, a fellow graduate student who bought the business in May 2014. “It’s allowed us to talk authentically about being a sustainable business by not putting additional trucks on the road to deliver our products.” The bicycle model also helps the business avoid logistical challenges, such as parking downtown and the capital cost of purchasing and maintaining trucks or vans.
It’s an undeniable fact that the city is a haven for cyclists, but Portland also really loves soup. “We’ve seen year-over-year growth since 2008,” says Schlachter. “At our peak time last winter, we were close to 800 deliveries per week.” As soon as it starts raining, soup subscriptions skyrocket. The company has grown in size to keep up with the demand and has 18 employees, including a full-time chef and three to four prep cooks.
The core demographic has also shifted over the years. When SoupCycle first launched, the primary clientele was the hungry lunch crowd in downtown offices. “At this point, the model has completely flipped, and probably two-thirds of our business is residential,” says Schlachter. “We are seeing so many working families with kids who need just one night a week off. I’m a dad, I get it, and we love being able to be a solution for so many families.”
The subscription—or soupscription—is customizable, flexible, and pay-as-you-go, factors that translate to a longstanding and loyal customer base. “You can get delivery every week or twice a month. Or you can opt out for a week,” says Schlachter. “It’s one healthy meal a week that our customers don’t have to worry about.” The menu changes weekly, and the options always include at least one vegan soup, one meat soup, and a chef’s choice soup.
“Our most popular is probably the lemongrass coconut chicken curry soup or the roasted corn and ancho chile bisque,” says chef Eric Koepsell. It’s a Saturday afternoon, and Koepsell, a former restaurant chef, dips a wooden paddle that is about the length of an umbrella into a seven-gallon pot and stirs. The aroma of tomato, fennel, and white bean soup fills the kitchen. Once satisfied, he smiles, replaces the lid on the simmering pot, and sidles over to stir the next batch.
At an adjacent counter, a sous chef slices and dices vegetables from behind a small mountain of foil-wrapped baked potatoes. The hundreds of pounds of potatoes are for the crowd-pleasing baked potato soup, where ingredients like cheddar cheese and bacon star.
For Koepsell, recipe development is ongoing and a creative outlet. “We discuss ideas as a whole, test them for a staff meal, and then if we like them, we introduce them to our customers,” he says. “I don’t have a specific favorite ingredient, but I do love how broad our spice rack is these days. I’ve never been able to cook with such a range of flavors on one menu.”
Some of the soups are inventive riffs on comfort food. Barbecue split pea is their Southern spin on split pea soup, and Barack-a-li cheddar is a playful homage to the president’s home vegetable garden.
Pot of Goodness Sake, a pureed red lentil soup made with carrots, potatoes, garlic, a touch of cumin, a splash of lemon, and a subtle kick of cayenne, was featured in Food & Wine magazine in 2011.
“We do adjust our soups to the season,” says Koepsell. During the summertime, the kitchen makes lighter soups and chilled soups. “During the winter, we offer more hearty takes, such as chowders and chili. When it’s been raining for months, a hearty soup can heal the soul.”
On Friday nights, the chef reviews the status of orders for the week. Then weekends unfold in a whirl of prepping, stock-making, and batch-style cooking. Most of the vegetables are supplied by Organically Grown Company, a cooperative based in the Willamette Valley since 1978. “The vegetables we use are 100-percent organic,” says Koepsell. “We source local first and then sourcing goes beyond the Pacific Northwest when necessary.”
With the steady surge in business and employee growth, SoupCycle decided to pursue B Corps Certification in spring 2015. B Corps are for-profit companies certified by the non-profit B Lab to meet rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency. Or, as they explain on their website: B Corp certification is to business what Fair Trade certification is to coffee or USDA Organic certification is to milk.
“We’ve always strived to be a sustainable business—yes, we use bicycles—but it’s so much more than that,” says Schlachter. “The B Corps model gives us a template so we can measure our business practices overall, and it provides an opportunity to be part of a broader community of sustainable businesses.” Oregon now has 68 B Corps companies, with the majority falling in the services industry, including food and beverage.
“The B Lab certification has given us a tool to assess our business with specific metrics to help understand the environmental and social impacts of our business,” says Schlachter. “It is also a tool that allows us to use data to demonstrate our sustainable business practices and the improvements we make each year. I love that piece of it because when I think about sustainability, it’s about continuous improvement.”
In October, SoupCycle relocated to The Redd on Salmon Street, the new Ecotrust development in Portland’s Central Eastside designed to support local food enterprises and serve as a food and distribution hub for chefs, foodservice directors, farmers, and ranchers. It’s a transition that has enhanced SoupCycle’s sustainable business platform and the trajectory of the company.
“Our move to The Redd is exciting,” says Schlachter, shortly before the move. “The building will have solar panels on the roof, as well as a reclaimed water system that uses the hot water generated by the refrigeration units as water to our sinks.
There’s also the element of a thriving like-minded community. Organically Grown Company delivers produce right to The Redd’s dock. And the move prompted a partnership between SoupCycle and B-line Sustainable Urban Delivery.
“Both of our companies have been active in the alternative transportation delivery fleets in Portland for the same amount of time,” says Franklin Jones, owner and CEO of B-line. While SoupCycle grew an integrated company making soups with organic ingredients and delivering them to the inter-neighborhoods, B-line developed a multi-faceted logistics business that delivers goods of all kinds into the professional services buildings in the downtown core.
“When the opportunity came to look at The Redd as a campus environment in which we were both tenants, we started to focus on our core competencies and how we could complement each other rather than duplicate services,” says Jones.
B-line has picked up the delivery side of SoupCycle and is now the exclusive distributor in Portland, delivering soups via their electric- assisted freight tricycles. “With both of us being B Corps, it made it easy to consider the next step—that’s one of the benefits of being a B Corps is that each business has that stamp of integrity,” says Jones.
It’s a merging of values and business that means fewer cars on the road and more homemade soup for Portland.
Kerry Newberry is a freelance writer based in Portland, where she chases stories about people through the lens of food and wine. She contributes regularly to local and national magazines. Read more of her work at www.kerrynewberry.com.