FARMINGTON, HILLS, MICH. — A downward turn in soup sales inspired Zoup! Specialty Products to expand its retail lineup. Known for broths that are “good enough to drink,” the brand earlier this year debuted a line of shelf stable premium soups featuring five chef-inspired recipes.

Kettle-cooked in small batches, the soups are free from gluten, artificial ingredients and preservatives and feature the brand’s homestyle broths as their base. Varieties include chicken and riced cauliflower, butternut squash with brown butter and sage, spicy chicken chilada, tomato bisque and garden vegetable.

Sales of ready-to-eat soup fell 9% at retail in 2021, according to data from IRI, a Chicago-based market research firm. Negative perceptions of canned food were a factor, with many shoppers seeking options perceived as healthier, fresher and trendier.

“We know soup, and we know the soup category shouldn’t be declining,” said Eric Ersher, founder of Zoup! Specialty Products and Zoup! Eatery. “We began operating on the thesis that people wanted high quality soups, but it simply wasn’t available; and people wanted to eat soup, but they didn’t want to eat foods out of cans.”

The launch marked a “return to roots” for the brand, which got its start as a fast-casual restaurant chain. WOWorks, parent company of Saladworks and other foodservice brands, acquired Zoup! Eatery in May. Zoup! Specialty Products continues to operate as an independent business led by Mr. Ersher.

It has been nine years since he brought the brand into retail. More than two decades of experience gave him a firm grasp of what makes a good broth, but none of the options available in grocery stores delivered the complex balance and taste served on Zoup! Eatery menus. Mr. Ersher leveraged the restaurant franchise business to fund the new venture, investing $500,000 and several years of research to develop a line of shelf stable broths worthy of the Zoup! moniker.

The brand was the first-to-market in the premium broth category and the first broth to be packaged in recyclable glass jars, he said.  

“The category has evolved quite a bit since then,” Mr. Ersher said. “When we first came to market, we faced objections from buyers because we were in glass and because we were more expensive than other products out there. It seemed as if there was only a choice between cans or aseptic cartons, and 32-oz of bone broth only cost a few dollars.”

A wider variety of products at a range of price points populate the broth aisle today. Mr. Ersher said Zoup! is positioned as the category’s “highly accessible premium line.”

The company is gearing up to introduce its third line, a trio of clean label Culinary Concentrates, this fall. The “super clean label” broth concentrates come in beef bone broth, chicken bone broth and savory no-chicken vegan broth varieties.

“This new product is intended to be a challenger to the existing broth concentrates, so we side-by-side in blind taste tests,” Mr. Ersher said. “It’s a little bit more expensive, but it goes a long way. A little 8-oz jar will produce gallons of broth.”