‘Souper Jenny’ Started With Hand Modeling Money

By Matt Kempner The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

She's an actress who fell in love with life inside restaurants.

Jenny Levison knew little about business when she started. Yet, 16 years after opening her first Souper Jenny restaurant selling soups, salads and sandwiches in Buckhead, she owns six local eateries. Her business generated more than $4 million in revenue last year.

Levison, who just turned 50, said she's still having fun seeking to inspire customers and co-workers.

I did some regional theater and some soap opera work in New York. Then I realized, "Wow, there's zippo money." Supporting myself became an issue. So I found myself doing theater and working in restaurants. I liked it. Working in a restaurant, it was like one big show.

I moved to Los Angeles. But I was much more gravitating toward the restaurant industry. I didn't know what it would turn into. I never thought about having a restaurant.

I met this girl who was a caterer (in Buckhead). She said, "My lease says I have to have retail out front. Do you want to do something?" I was doing a play here. I said, "Sure." We just opened a little sandwich shop. I named it Jenny's Marketplace. I really didn't know what I was doing.

I found out being an entrepreneur there is no way around the hard work. I was the first one in at 4 in the morning. I was the last one out mopping the floor and taking out the trash at five or six in the afternoon.

It was exciting. I don't think it is for everyone to be a restaurateur or an entrepreneur. Not everyone feels comfortable taking a risk.

It was open for three years. I met my then-husband. We decided we were going to take off on this trip around the world. We left for 19 months. Everyone thought we were crazy, because I had just gotten that thing going and making money.

We would go to a country and if we were running out of money, we would try to worm our way into kitchen jobs. That's really where I learned to cook.

I did a newsletter for customers I had had from (Jenny's Marketplace, which had closed). It would have recipes and stories of our travels. When we came back from that trip, I just rented a commercial kitchen, and I started sending out the mailer saying, "I'm going to do these homemade soups that I learned in all these countries." People started signing up for a delivery.

Everyone was like, "You are living in Atlanta. It is hot here. I don't know if a soup business is going to really take off."

I could not even keep up with the demand for it. People ordered 10 quarts of this and put it in the freezer.

Her catering friend asked if she would take over potential restaurant space in Buckhead. Levison agreed. Around the same time, she got a divorce. She was still acting, but performances and rehearsals were generally at night, leaving her free during the day.

Back before I cooked and had age spots, I lived in L.A. and somehow got hooked into this TV gig of being a hand model. It was tons of money. I had $10,000 left, and I used it to open the restaurant.

A friend of my mom's came up with the name Souper Jenny. When we opened we had a couple hundred bucks in the bank.

The only people I knew were actors. So I hired those people to work the front. They always had great personalities. Even if they are having a bad day, they were actors, they can can fake it.

My ultimate vision is I want it to be more than the food. That you come here and you feel like it is part of my home.

I was just going to change the menu every day and cook whatever I want and we will figure it out day by day. Which is a lot harder than having a set menu. I researched every place similar to me and what they were charging. I tried to match that price. But I knew I wanted to use the best ingredients possible.

The first year we made just under $100,000 (in revenue). I paid myself like $12 an hour, and I worked an 85 hour week. I was so tired.

In recent months she opened three more Souper Jennys in Decatur, Brookhaven and Atlanta's westside. That's in addition to her the original Souper Jenny, a juice bar called Juicy Jenny and Cafe Jonah, which she runs largely as a way to give back to the community.

The juice bar was really struggling. It is just now going into some profit. That's the toughest business because it is 100 percent organic. The food cost is so much higher.

I don't go into a place that doesn't already have a kitchen. I don't open a restaurant for more than $50,000, which is pretty unheard of right now. I haven't borrowed any money to open any of the restaurants. I barely have any (personal) savings. Everything goes back in.

It's volume that has made it so successful over the years. People are coming in not just for lunch but then they are taking three quarts of soup home.

I pay much higher than most people in the restaurant business to the employees. I have a bonus structure. I take my staff on trips if we reach goals. We use to close a month every year. We can't do that any more, but every store closes for a week and everyone is paid to full salary for that week that we are closed.

(At Cafe Jonah), my first vision was the menu was going to be pay what you want. If there were people who came in who couldn't afford to eat here, the other people would sort of cover their costs. That worked for about a month.

She scaled back the pay-what-you-want model to just Sundays, but eventually dropped that as well.

There were people that were extremely generous. There were people who would pay $5 for a family of five. They weren't people who didn't have money. It was sort of sad.

She tried donating 10 percent of the cafe's total sales to nonprofits, but that didn't leave her with enough to cover expenses. Now, she said she donates 10 percent of profits to non-profit organizations selected by customers. She faced other challenges, including not paying enough in sales taxes.

I did everything myself and didn't think anyone else cared as much as I cared. It's ego. I thought I could handle all of it. Now, I've surrounded myself with people I trust.

She used to pay every for every item as soon as it was delivered.

That takes more time to stop every five minutes to write a check. I learned to bring someone in to teach me how to pay bills. To teach me about cash flow. Now we pay things weekly and staggered.

Five years into her business, she became a single mom after adopting a baby boy, Jonah.

It was hard. I had to leave him at 5:30 or six a.m. almost every day. I had a nanny.

I remember having Jonah when he was a baby in a BabyBjörn while I was working. I was serving soup to people with this baby attached to me, which I loved.

Jonah is 11 now.

I want him to know that I love what I do, and that's what he should be searching for.

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