Michigan Ross Alum and Zoup! CEO Talks Creating Opportunities, Overcoming Failure, and “Paying It Forward”
Eric Ersher, BBA ’86, beat the odds in the restaurant and franchise business with his vision for Zoup!
Founded in 1998, Zoup! offers a wide variety of daily soups served with a generous portion of freshly baked bread. The menu also includes made-to-order salads and sandwiches. Soup recipes range from low-fat to gluten-free, vegetarian to dairy-free, and classic to spicy, but one thing remains consistent – delicious, high-quality soup at the heart of every meal.
After Ersher sold his air duct cleaning business in 1990, he went to Law School, then attempted a change of pace by making proprietary spice blends for small restaurant chains. One of those restaurants wanted a blend for soup. Inspired, Ersher and his cousin leased the kitchen of a former General Motors auto plant in Detroit and built a small soup commissary.
As Ersher explored the restaurant industry, he noticed that soup was often considered an afterthought to other foods. In addition to this, really good soup was hard to find – perhaps due to the homemade nature of the dish.
“When we told people we were in the soup business they would very often want to share recipes and stories of their childhood, their grandmother, travel,” Ersher said. “It occurred to us that soup, unlike any other food category, seemed to elicit thoughts of comfort, warmth, and well-being for many. Those early experiences were the inspiration behind creating the Zoup! brand and opening our first location in Southfield, Michigan.”
With more than 80 locations across the United States and Ontario, Canada, about a dozen unique daily soup options, consideration for increasingly dynamic customer dietary needs, and encouraged sampling, Zoup! has proven to be a success.
Zoup!’s success cannot only be attributed to the customer experience, but also Ersher’s desire to help people become successful independent business owners.
“After five company locations in five years, we began the process to franchise the Zoup! concept,” Ersher said. “I was thrilled when the first franchisee was from — and opening in — Ann Arbor. I knew it was the right market for the brand.”
Ersher was no stranger to Ann Arbor; Michigan Ross was a key part of his journey to entrepreneurship.
“My business school experience taught me the value of working in teams and building relationships with other industry experts, and that I was more capable than I thought,” Ersher said. “That is what motivated me to attend law school and start my businesses.”
Constant growth and evolution are other forms of motivation that Ersher says have driven both his personal success and professional success at Zoup!
“One of our Zoup!isms is Always Better – it keeps things interesting and challenging,” said Ersher. “Setting the vision, building and developing our team, and now having the ability to work with specialists so I, too, can create value by being more aligned with my unique abilities and strengths are all ways that Zoup! is relentlessly working on improvement.”
Overcoming failure is another way that Ersher remains a positive business leader. He says that throughout his experience he has learned that failure, embarrassment, and losses are never permanent.
“Missteps and shortcomings can be more accessible to entrepreneurs, but more often than not, I realize that my failures were inaction rather than an actual misstep.”
It's readjustment of perspective that Ersher says can be most beneficial in times of perceived failures. He also believes that other business leaders and even students can benefit from a greater purpose and focus to keep them on track.
“I, as well as much of our team, are motivated by serving the greater good, whether it is helping franchise owners become successful or providing the tools and coaching to create a great [company] culture, offering great service to our customers, and in many cases, entry-level workers who may have never had a job before. The idea of creating an environment that is supportive and nurturing moves all of us.”
Ersher says that developing the untapped potential in his team also motivates him to know that they can do almost anything they put their mind to when they rid themselves of past or external constraints. He reflects on the joys of helping others become successfully self-employed, and bringing out the best in people is one of the things he is most proud of as a business leader.
“Making a living doing what I love with a committed group o professionals who challenge me is one of the things I enjoy most about my job,” Ersher said. “One thing I always try to remember is the excitement and enthusiasm I felt as a B-school student, and how charged up I was after business leaders came in and shared their wins and losses. Now, at any opportunity, I say yes to pay that experience forward to the extent I am able.”