After spending the last nine years as a stay-at-home mom of three, Nancy Fink was ready to go back to work. The type of work, however, was less certain. Armed with a business background and a past working in human resources, Fink knew that was work that she wasn’t passionate about. So she started think about what she loved to do.
“My passion has always been cooking. It’s in my blood,” Fink said. “I grew up in the kitchen with my mom and my grandma, but I wasn’t formally trained. I wasn’t looking to become a chef anywhere. So what could I do with my love for cooking in a way that’s fulfilling to me?”
The answer: soup. Fink started Spoon Optional, a company making sippable soups sold in plastic jars for an on-the-go snack or meal.
“I had this realization about soup being one of those things because it’s always something I loved to make,” she said. “I love the process of making soup: The smell of the onions and garlic cooking, the chopping of the ingredients. And there’s endless flavor combinations.”
The past eight months have moved quickly for Fink. She worked with a friend in California to help her develop recipes, and hired local chef consultant Jon Locke to help manage production. She rents kitchen space at the Sabes JCC – which is convenient for her since her two oldest kids are students at Heilicher Jewish Day School – so her soups are de-facto Kosher, even though they aren’t certified as such yet. The soups are sold via her website and they are on the shelves at the Linden Hills Co-Op and St. Paul’s Naked Nina’s Nutrient Bar; Lakewinds is scheduled to start carrying early next month, and she’s starting on discussions with Lunds & Byerlys, The Wedge Co-op and Whole Foods Market.
“When I was selling direct to consumer, it seemed great. Now that I’m start to sell retail, I see the need to narrow some of it from a sustainability standpoint,” she said. “I can’t be selling 13 soups. It’s not doable.”
Her winter soups will roll out on Dec. 2. Two of her year-round offerings are Roasted Tomato Basil and Roasted Veggie Stock. In addition to possibly becoming certified Kosher, she is also exploring becoming certified organic and certified vegan. She uses all organic produce in her soups and they are all vegan, with the exception of Pumpkin Spice because she uses honey as a sweetener; she said she’ll be changing the recipe formulation so that it can also be vegan.
Fink said that the decision to go in the direction of starting a soup company comes on the heels of the booming cold-press juice trend.
“Soup is a much healthier choice of a meal or snack [than juice],” she said. “I was looking at grocery stores and seeing there weren’t many options. There were private label brands on shelves, but in terms of refrigerated options, there wasn’t. This the intersection of cooking and health-and-wellness, which is also an area I’m really focused on.”
Fink drinks the soups right from the BPA-free plastic jars that they are sold in. The soups can be microwaved in microwave-safe containers or heated up on the stove.
“It doesn’t have to be something that you eat with the spoon,” she said. “It adds a convenience layer to soup that people have really responded to.”
Fink said that despite being up and running for eight months, she said that they find themselves honing their recipes.
“There are subtle things that when you’re working in a kitchen like this instead of a factory, things are going to change,” she said. “And fresh produce is going to change from time to time. Even if the ingredients are the same, the natural variations in produce will change that.”
One thing that Fink doesn’t get tired of is having people tell her how much they enjoy the soups.
“There have been all these experiences that have been so surreal and humbling. When I went for the photo shoot and all those people were there and it’s my soups it kind of took my breath away,” she said. “The first time I saw my products on the shelf at Linden Hills and setting up my first demo I got really emotional. I never would have thought in March when I had this idea that it would evolve to this point.
“I threw myself into it. There were probably some sacrifices I made in other parts of my life. It’s a good thing I have a very supportive husband who helped pick up the slack.”