Ever wanted to know how It's Souper got to where it is today? Well, you're in luck! Read on to gain some insight into the process starting and developing the company and hear some words of wisdom along the way.
I noticed there was a gap in the retail space for African inspired soups and sauces and I always found myself having to travel long distances to get ingredients for African dishes I cooked at home. I decided it was time to fill that void and do it in a way that would appeal to the mainstream market. Starting with soups was a natural fit because soups and sauces are a popular staple in African cuisine.
Myself and my husband labelling containers at home
I had to do the work myself to grow the company organically, starting from sending emails after researching online, walking into small mom-and-pop shops with samples and a sell sheet - pitching to the owner/buyer and telling my story. Eventually, I began to set my sights on larger stores like Sobeys, Whole Foods, and Healthy Planet. I did the work myself to find out who the buyers for these retailers were and reached out to them directly. Rejection was a common occurrence, but I didn’t let that deter me from my goal.
With all that said, an idea is only as good as its execution, cooking at home is very different from large making batches for sale and there are just so many details and standards to consider when producing for retail. I applied to a program that helped me understand the complexities of food production and scaling and worked with a food developer to upscale recipes so I could produce them on my own in a shared test kitchen which I did myself for about a year. Eventually, I found a co-manufacturer to help produce in batches, which has allowed me to focus on the business; the priority now is working on the business and not in the business-- spending more time on strategic growth plans as opposed to cooking and production.
I think of my packaging is as Ad/Marketing board -- what makes your product stand out from all the numerous brands beside it? What makes your product so attractive that it makes people focus on the values you can provide over the price? I designed a packaging for the product that told a story of my brand and the tribal patterns and colors of my African roots.
Try your best not to compete on price but rather the quality of your product and the value it can bring to your customer. For example, my photo is on the It's Souper packaging, as well as a short bio of my story as a Black female immigrant. Many people are looking to support local BIPOC and women-owned businesses and prefer buying products made by a person as opposed to a conglomerate.
Another important part of marketing is social media marketing. Leveraging platforms like Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook are extremely valuable to a small brand. As well, ads on Facebook and Google, or collaborations with influencers, other brands, and retailers, are beneficial. Ad spend should always be a part of your budget as your product needs to be marketed to be sold.
Financing the venture
When starting any business, you will have to self finance. Much of my early financing was through my own personal savings and line of credit and then I began applying for grants. In 2020, there were a number of initiatives looking to support Black businesses, so though I only ended up getting one grant (Cassels Black-Owned Small Business Grant), it was significant and helped out a lot when it came to designing new packaging and getting listed in large retailers.
Many new entrepreneurs will wonder if they should quit their day jobs because of how time consuming it is to run a Startup business. Make sure that you have a significant amount of savings before you do so -- you may even have to take up a second job because your new business will suck up a lot of money and won’t be profitable for a while. The food & beverage business is very cashflow dependent – you need funds for packaging, ingredients, rent, production, shipping, insurance, and other expenses and you can go on for weeks before getting paid by your retail partners since the average payment term is net 30days+.
I have received some funding interest, but I haven’t taken that step yet. I know for certain that when it comes to getting external investors and VC funding, you should look for not just someone who can give you money, but also someone/group who has connections and skills in places you don't in order to strategically scale your brand.
When starting and scaling a business, not everything will perfectly go every time – be prepared for many hurdles and nights when you stay up worrying. Luckily, these lessons learned can now be valuable advice to you! Here are two major lessons that I learned while growing It's Souper.
1. Don't let fear cause you to compete on price.
With high quality products that use authentic imported African spices, all natural ingredients, and no preservatives, It's Souper is unique, richer, and heartier than most of the soups on the market. Originally, I had reviewed other Soup brands on the market and thought I better stay within that price point. I told myself - when you get bigger your costs will be lower so don't worry. That was a mistake.
I didn’t see myself/brand this way because I felt too small to be priced on my values... Even with all the effort I put into making it a valuable brand - I still let my feelings of being 'less than' and fears of being too expensive dictate how to price my products.
So now I'm working on strategies for price adjustments before expanding further into other large retailers which is a hurdle - but needs to be done.
2. Nobody is going to believe in your brand more than you.
Speak out and raise your hand at every opportunity you can. You are your own best advocate! Take every opportunity to share your story and that will open many doors and opportunities for you.
For example, I was cast on the upcoming season of Dragon's Den because the casting director saw my story in the Toronto Star. You never know who could read, hear, or stumble across your story, so get it out there as much as you can! Don't be too shy to take up space and shake the table because you might miss out on opportunities.
"If you are not noticed, you are not recognized, and if you are not recognized, you are not promoted" - Lola Adeyemi
It's Souper is still growing and there is so much more to come! I vision is that the brand will expand beyond soups & sauces and will also include products like marinades, and spices and other condiments to create an experience for people to know my culture through food.
Africa is a whole diverse continent and still an untapped market in the Canadian retail space. This is just the beginning!