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Inspiring Conversations with Jen Ferone of Nine Spoons Artisan Soups

Today we’d like to introduce you to Jen Ferone.  

Alright, so thank you so much for sharing your story and insight with our readers. To kick things off, can you tell us a bit about how you got started?
My story began many years ago with a deep desire to create a business of my own. I spent many years doing all of the “right things” and I followed a very traditional path. I earned degrees and worked for many years in my field, yet I was always feeling unfulfilled. In 2015, I decided that I was going to quit my job and do something else. I had no backup plan. I kicked around many ideas and one night I was having dinner with my parents and we were talking about my paternal Grandmother’s beloved wedding soup. Her soup was very different and unlike anything you find in restaurants and retailers. My Dad and his eight siblings had often talked about sharing it in some way, but nothing ever came of it. At that moment, I decided I would see how far I could take this idea. My Dad just so happened to be retired – with a really strong background in finance and the entrepreneurial bug as well – so it was natural to have him on board as a partner. 

Neither one of us had any experience in the food business, so it was baptism by fire. I found the Central Kitchen (a Cleveland incubator for people just like us) and that is how we got our start. We started making the soup out of the facility there and selling at farmers’ markets. We wanted to have proof of concept before growing and found very quickly that my grandmother’s soup resonated with people. Customers began asking about other flavors and where else they could buy it. 

Over the next few years, we developed 4 more recipes – Classic Minestrone (vegan), Zesty Tomato Basil Bisque (vegetarian), Fire-Roasted Corn Chowder (GF + vegetarian), and Chicken Noodle. We also began working with a co-manufacturer to help us keep up with production. That was a game-changer in that, it helped us to focus on the sales and marketing – because, without a focus on sales and marketing, there is no business. We began selling to independent stores locally and have expanded into over 100 stores in 6 states (including Giant Eagle, Market District, and Heinen’s) with our frozen soups. 

Our goal over the next couple of years is to continue expansion in the Midwest and the Northeast and to build our eCommerce business. 

I’m sure you wouldn’t say it’s been obstacle-free, but so far would you say the journey has been a fairly smooth road?
Not at all! In retrospect, I can laugh about the challenges. And there were certainly many. 

Navigating the world of the Ohio Department of Agriculture, the USDA, the health departments of various counties and other entities can be confusing to people in the business, let alone those of us who have zero experience with it. The plan was to sell to retailers in the first year. We got an “oh, by the way,” call right before launching that we couldn’t, due to the fact that we were working out of a shared kitchen under the ODA. Since our product had meat, we were only able to sell directly to consumers (farmers’ markets and events) and not wholesale. In my mind, I was thinking, “ok, we can legally sell our products at a huge event (which we did) to thousands of people, but we can’t sell a couple of cases to a small retailer?” This was the path that led us to our co-manufacturer, which ended up being the right move in the long run. 

One of the biggest challenges that continues as you grow, is the reliance on so many others for the success of your business. The distributors, brokers, and retailers are the gatekeepers in this industry and it is incredibly difficult to get the support necessary for growth. For me, a type-A personality (like many other entrepreneurs), this is a tough one to deal with. 

Of course, there are so many other stories – dumplings that all stuck to the pans and had to be thrown out, trying a new kettle and ruining 60 gallons of product, hundreds of cases toppling over and breaking, scrambling to print tiny labels for our new packaging after the USDA informed us that one word on our packaging had to move to the front otherwise, we couldn’t sell it. The list goes on and on, but I think this is all pretty typical of most startups. 

Looking back, I believe there is a great advantage to being naive. First of all, had I known the obstacles, I may not have taken the leap. Also, you learn a hell of a lot by figuring it out along the way. 

As you know, we’re big fans of Nine Spoons Artisan Soups. For our readers who might not be as familiar what can you tell them about the brand?
My Grandmother was challenged with feeding a large family of nine children (the inspiration behind our name, Nine Spoons), and she often struggled to find meals that were wholesome and nutritious and that the whole family would enjoy. Her wedding soup the family favorite – among her children and extended family. We realized that modern families have the same challenge of finding healthy, easy-to-prepare meals that everyone will enjoy and we started the business to help to solve this age-old problem. 

Our soups are delicious and made from quality ingredients. Real food – nothing artificial and no preservatives. They are available frozen to allow for the freshest product and most convenience and they are easy to heat and enjoy! 

I am most proud of building this business from scratch and bootstrapping it along the way. I love that I get to share my grandmother’s legacy with so many and it brings me such joy to connect with customers, supporters, and other colleagues along the way. 

We recently became a certified Women-Owned Business (a pretty intense process!) and I am very proud of that accomplishment. 

I am also excited that we get to make an impact in our own community. We are able to help provide jobs to local workers as well as contribute to this city’s thriving. That is such a satisfying feeling as business owner. 

Our soups can be found in the freezer section at your favorite stores including all Giant Eagle Market District stores, select Giant Eagle stores, and Heinen’s. You can also find them on Market Wagon online farmers market (marketwagon.com) and Green Bean Delivery. 

They are available on our website as well. www.ninespoonssoup.com 

Who else deserves credit in your story?
We have had so much help along the way, and that has been the best part of this adventure. 

Fizz Creative – our graphic design partners (they have done all of our brandings for us, including our recent redesign and packaging design) 

Ainsley Moir / Engineer Your Brand – our brand consultant 

Paul Abbott – advocate for our brand and all things local from Giant Eagle 

Tim Skaryd / Hospitality Sales & Marketing – mentor and advocate 

Our Foodie Friends – too many to name! Lots of other brands who are so generous with their time, information, and expertise 

Our customers – they are the reason we can do what we do! 

My Family – Especially my husband, Alex, and Mom, Karen. Not only are they our biggest supporters, they also help Dad and I with everything from making dumplings, to setting up tents, to calling on stores, checking our product, and putting up with countless “business meetings” over Sunday dinners and holidays. 

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