CEO Conversations

One Restauranteur’s Effort to Combat Food Insecurity

At a goBeyondProfit CEO Forum we had the opportunity to speak with CEO, Jenny Levison, known to most Atlantans as Souper Jenny. The lines are long at every Souper Jenny location with eager, loyal customers. Whenever you stand in line you see signs about The Zadie Project which gives you a glimpse into the mission that drives this founder. 

The following are excerpts from our conversation highlighting how a passionate leader can rally an entire team to a heightened sense of purpose beyond profit that frankly, makes the soup taste better and the customers as loyal as the team behind the counter.

Turning passion into profit and mission:

This isn’t what I started out doing. I wasn’t in the restaurant business. I was an actor in New York and then in Los Angeles and I always had a job on the side in the restaurant world. I slowly started to realize how much more I loved the world of service, more than I liked going on auditions all the time. So little by little, it became what’s important to me. When I first opened Souper Jenny, when it was just myself and one other person, I think that’s what drew me – this idea of service. I was drawn to my community. I wanted to serve in some way and it then parlayed into serving through soup, through food and by gathering around a table.

My mission is to serve, to be part of my community. 

I’m from Atlanta and while I did not grow up here, I’ve been back for more than 25 years. My mission is to serve, to be part of my community.  To be honest, the bottom line has become less important to me. I’ve made personal sacrifices. This has just become part of who I am. It could be a good month. It could be a bad one. As a business owner, I have to look beyond this month and next month. Serving our community is part of the business now and I’m willing to do whatever it takes. It’s non-negotiable.

The Zadie Project:

I started feeling it was time to come up with something more.

When you’re in the restaurant business, you’re asked to donate things all the time, your time, your services. And I just felt personally a calling that we needed to do it on a bigger scale. So I just decided to do it. It’s not like I knew what I was doing in any way, shape or form, but I thought, “I want to start a nonprofit part of this business, and I want to get our entire company involved.” 

It started with a personal mission. What breaks my heart is people that don’t have food in our own community, especially children in the Title 1 school system. The families that are really trying to do everything they can, but they’re struggling and have to decide sometimes if they’re going to pay their rent or buy groceries.

I wanted to come up with a way where we could give them nutritious meals that weren’t processed foods. I didn’t know how I was going to do it but that’s where it started. I had this idea. I had a vision.

I presented it to the company as a whole. We all meet as a company once a year. We close all the shops. We come together and have a summit. And we talk about where we were and where we want to go for the next year. So we sat around and brainstormed ideas and we developed the idea for The Zadie Project. 

Let me tell you what Zadie means if you don’t know.  Zadie is Yiddish for grandfather. My father is known as the Zadie in our family. And he really gave me my very first recipe, which is my dad’s turkey chili, our very popular soup. Anytime anyone buys turkey chili at any of our stores, 100% of that money goes back to the children and families we serve.

Involving Your Entire Team:

Being present and your employees seeing that you’re actually involved is so important.

There’s no getting around it. If you’re a leader it requires rolling up your sleeves, and being part of the business and the mission beyond profit.

Right before I came to this event, I was slinging soup for The Zadie Project. Today is our day that we package soup.

You can’t just tell them what’s going to happen and how to do it. We talk about how to get your people involved. They think I’m insane. And I get worried that they’re not as engaged as I want to be because I think everyone should care about hunger. The reality is they’re not always going to want to give in the same way that you want to give. But even if hunger is not a specific employees’ passion, they’re excited to be part of something in their job.

Anytime anyone buys turkey chili at any of our stores, 100% of that money goes back to the nonprofit that feeds children and families. So while hunger may not be the cashier’s thing, with every sale they’re still part of something and so is the customer. I’ve witnessed their sense of pride.

Don’t be afraid of failure:

Initially, I got a lot of advice to hook up with an organization that was already formed. And I did look into that. But I had such a passion and I wasn’t finding what I was looking for. For anyone else considering this for their company, I would really go back to the basic question, what is your passion? Are you going to be the one to start the initiative? Are you willing?

In the beginning, I mean, I truly did not know what I was doing in any way, shape, or form. But I had a vision: we have a farm, we’re going to grow the food, turn it into soup, and get it right to the schools. And children are going to know, before they get on their bus that they can take this food home.

Obviously, getting into any school system is very difficult, almost impossible, if you’re just someone off the street like me. So there were lots of challenges. Could we find a way to work with the schools? Was the farm going to sustain what we were doing? But little by little you just find your way. You have to ask people for help, know your weaknesses and get people that can help you do the things you need to do.

Jenny Levison
Owner, Souper Jenny
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