WASHINGTON — Sara Polon is on a mission to save the world, one bowl of soup at a time.
It’s a goal she set out to accomplish back in 2008 when she started Soupergirl, a D.C.-based soup company. At the time, the former comedian abandoned the stage and convinced her mom, “an astonishing cook,” to join her in the kitchen. The two started making soups from scratch in the basement of a now defunct Spanish restaurant, selling them online and at area farmers markets.
The impetus behind Polon’s decision to hang up the mic and pick up a ladle had to do with Michael Pollan’s bestselling book, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.”
“I was one of those people who used to think that farmers markets were really cute and kitschy, and I didn’t realize the impact of every food choice I made, and how every food choice I make impacts my body, my community, my water system, my air, the planet,” Polon said.
Using locally sourced vegetables, fresh herbs, whole grains and homemade stocks, Polon introduced D.C. to watermelon gazpacho in the summer, autumn vegetable chili in the fall and a hearty ribollita in the winter. And the city ate — or rather, slurped — them all up.
Fast-forward to 2016, and Soupergirl has two restaurant locations (one in Georgetown and one in Takoma, D.C.) and is stocked in several markets and grocery stores, including Whole Foods.
Rather than a basement kitchen, Polon and her crew produce hundreds of gallons of soup each day out of a 1,500-square-foot kitchen — a space that is quickly becoming too small for the ever-expanding operation.
Polon admits soup isn’t the sexiest food in today’s competitive culinary landscape, but it’s classic, which helps sustain Soupergirl’s popularity.
“Soup is not a trend; it’s not a fad. A perfectly made bowl of soup can have everything you need — protein, fiber, vitamins, everything. It’s hydrating and it’s also so comforting. It can be like a hug from your mom,” Polon said.
The absence of chemicals, preservatives and loads of salt is another reason why Soupergirl has soared to success.
“People, now more than ever, are flipping over containers of food. They’re not looking at the front label, they’re looking at the back label. And our back label is something I’m very proud of,” Polon said.
It’s on that back label where consumers may notice a few things missing — like meat and dairy. That’s because all of Soupergirl’s soups are vegan, but that doesn’t mean all of Polon’s customers are.
“More and more people are restricting meat, dairy, eggs — they’re just paying much more attention,” Polon said about a growing national trend.
In the last several years, the concept of “occasional veganism” has caught on. Some are choosing to eat vegan for one meal; others pledge to go plant-based for one week. Former New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman kept vegan up until 6 p.m. and restaurants — from fast-casual to fine-dining — are modifying their menus to include more vegan-friendly options.
“It’s mainstream and I don’t think it’s a trend. I think it’s here to stay. Is the whole world turning vegan tomorrow? No … But people are paying attention and they’re changing,” Polon said.
Erica Meier, executive director of Compassion Over Killing, says the rise of the part-time vegan is one reason why the annual DC VegFest has grown so much in recent years. In 2009, the festival attracted 2,500 people. This year, its organizers are expecting 25,000.
The festival, scheduled for Saturday, Sept. 24, will include 125 vendors and a whole day’s worth of activities. Meier says you absolutely don’t need to be a vegan to attend the free festival — all are welcome to enjoy the free food samples, cooking demos and live music.
Polon says VegFest is a celebration of the growing awareness of food and its power.
“I truly believe the way to solve the world’s problems is through fixing our food system. We are not perfect. We have a lot of work to do, but we are getting there,” she said.
Polon’s next move is to slowly expand Soupergirl to introduce those outside of the D.C. region to healthy, homemade soup.
“Our mantra is ‘Save the world, one bowl of soup at a time,'” she said. “And I’m not going to save the world just feeding the hungry citizens of D.C.”