How Eric Ersher built a winning corporate culture at Zoup! Featured

6:42am EDT October 7, 2010

If a good business is like a good soup, the culture is kind of like the broth. Without it, you just have a disorganized collection of meats, vegetables, spices and pasta.

It’s why Eric Ersher has put culture at the forefront of Zoup! Fresh Soup Co., a fast-casual restaurant chain he founded in 1997 and now leads as managing partner.

When Ersher and his team decided to build and franchise a restaurant in which soup is the main attraction as opposed to an appetizer course, he was navigating uncharted territory, which made defining and enforcing the culture all the more critical to the company’s success.

“When we started out, we didn’t have a strategy, except to create a successful concept,” Ersher says. “Speed and management of the company became important variables as we got into franchising.”

Ersher’s management of the company has led to 24 locations in 12 years. Zoup! now employs 300 people and finished 2009 with $6.4 million in revenue.

Smart Business spoke with Ersher about how a winning culture sows the seeds for a winning business.

How does a successful culture play into a successful growth strategy for a business?

What has worked for us is to maintain a long-term perspective. We are in this for the long term, so that very much impacts the decisions we make when it comes to growth. We need our franchisees to be successful, and a smart growth plan will support their success. Also what has worked really well for us is investing in our culture, being very aware that the culture will develop in any group or organization, but the culture may not serve the end goals of the business. So we invest a lot in understanding our culture, understanding the best of our culture and finding the people who best fit our culture.

What I’ve found is that the stronger we create our culture, the more those who fit love being here and really feel like they’ve found a home. Those who don’t fit seem to self-select out of here and move to find a better place for themselves.

The other thing is being very protective of the brand. It’s very subtle and it’s hard to quantify with any traditional measures, but the greatest asset we have is the Zoup brand. So making certain that brand is well-represented and consistent with our company’s values is something that has been critical for us.

What needs to be in place for a culture to take root?

One of the things I believe is what we refer to as our passion, which is about bringing those intangibles often associated with soup to life and doing so in an environment where everything matters. That is our greater good, and I think having that greater good has been very helpful for us.

On the people side, the culture needs to be well-established, defined and authentic. And I stress the notion of being authentic. Having well-defined core values is critical for the recruiting and hiring process, as well. That is all about the ‘who’ in your organization. And for us, one of the things that really helps us at the store level is our operating philosophy, which is a series of principles we call ‘Zoupisms.’ Once we have staff that lives consistent with our core values, those principles empower them to execute on a day-to-day basis.

Zoupisms for us are more about education, about our training program, which trains the staff. We want to provide them with a higher level of understanding of why and how and why we do things. It allows them to make better decisions, observe our customers and achieve the long-term goals of the business.

How do you find people who are a good match for your culture?

One of the things we do is we list our core values in all of our job ads, and before we bring in anyone for an interview, we ask them to give examples of times when they’ve demonstrated those core values. And then, when we bring them in and interview them, it’s not just about experience and skills that we’re really trying to get our arms around, it’s whether they will fit within our culture. It’s more art than science, but you do want to stay focused on it.

Ideally, you want someone who is a cultural fit even before you are concerned with technical job requirements. We have let people go who have been great on the skill side but just not a great fit for the culture. The culture of a business is just too important to allow it to be in any way diluted by someone who is a bad fit. 

You can get a good sense of whether someone is a fit by going back to your core values. For example, in our core values, we say that ideas are appreciated but execution is worshipped. That’s about taking action. Another of our values centers on attitude. When something goes wrong, do people have a ‘woe is me’ attitude, or do they focus on finding solutions? Another value is ‘no jerks,’ which is self-explanatory. You know it when you see it. And we want people to be open and honest, which is all about having healthy relationships. Those are the specific things that we look at when we are speaking to candidates, including franchise candidates.

How to reach: Zoup! Fresh Soup Co., (800) 940-9687 or www.zoup.com.