Open letter to Boston University’s business school students

I was walking my dog in the Boston Common today, near the Embrace. A controversial sculpture is a great place to train an Australian Shepherd because people approach from all angles in the park with intention. Then people slow down and meander, directionless, trying to understand which way to look at the sculpture. Herding dogs do not respect this behavior.

So I work on teaching her to leave people alone when they are not behaving like a proper herd of cattle. I am a sloppy, inattentive dog trainer, so it’s good for me to train in an area where the stakes high if I don’t pay attention. I make my dog look me in the eye before every treat, I make her sit when someone walks close to her, I give her small treats even though my instinct is to give bigger treats because I would devote a bigger part of my brain to a task if someone were giving me bigger treats.

Two students came up to me with clipboards and said, “Do you have a moment to talk to us?” This is not unusual. If you live in expensive, liberal cities — Park Slope, Santa Monica, Boston — nonprofits hire students to ask people for money. And the kids always approach older women walking alone because the kids assume everyone else is too busy to stop. So I make a practice of telling the kids to fuck off in order to challenge their assumptions about age and gender.

But the students said, “We’re from Boston University’s business school,” so I couldn’t resist asking what they wanted to talk about. They said, “We’re doing market research for a new restaurant idea in Boston.”

I said, “I can talk with you if you can put up with me teaching my dog to not bark at you while we talk.” The dog barked at them.

They said, “The restaurant would serve only soups. Would you be interested in that type of restaurant?”

I said, “You should do a case study about Souplantation. It was a restaurant in California that catered to people with eating disorders and it went bankrupt.”

They said, “Okay. Goodbye.”

What the hell? I wasn’t done! First of all, Boston University’s business school should have an entrance exam where someone tells the prospective student that Souplantation went out of business because their client base was people with eating disorders. And if the prospective student does not ask, “Why is that?” then the student is rejected.

But I have so much more to say about a soup-only restaurant. People who make a meal out of soup are filling up on water: eating disorder (and autistic). And if they drag their friends there, the place has to have bread, and the bread has to be amazing and varied so friends come back, and then core customers gorge on bread and use soup to throw it up.

But I digress.

Let’s say there is someone who does not know about eating disorder culture and they are standing in front of a soup-only restaurant. There is soup on most menus because every culture has their own soup. There is matzah ball soup, turtle soup and gazpacho, and really, who wants to go to a single restaurant that is making all of those? It’s like going to Canal street to buy Luis Vuitton and Chanel and Supreme at the same $10 booth. Also, because there is soup on every menu, you can do a price-point study and discover that NO ONE MAKES MONEY ON SOUP.

When my kid was little, he once ordered a supersalad. The waitress said, “Huh?” It turned out that he had heard “soup or salad” so often that he thought it was one thing you got as a little extra. And that’s how everyone thinks of soup in a restaurant — as a little extra freebie. And restaurants offer a cup because most people don’t want a bowl because it’s slow to eat and Americans like to shovel in food and Boston is where you go for American food. That’s why the number-one thing served in a bowl in Boston is clam chowder: the most possible calories per spoonful.

The best way to do market research for a soup business is to make a pop-up UberEats business and see if you make money. There is no overhead, you can do different soups every day, and you can market test faster via an app where people are actually buying than walking around Boston Common where people are only guessing what they might buy. People don’t like to do quick accurate market research because they don’t want to find out their idea sucks.

Good market research happens all the time because its life observation. While I was talking with the students, I was having a really difficult time with my dog. And I decided to talk to them instead of pay attention to my dog. And I cut my training session short to go home and write this letter to them. If they had asked me, what I would have told them is Boston needs more dog training services. There are literally none. There are not even waitlists. Everyone got pandemic puppies. None of the dogs are trained by trainers. There’s a huge backlog and most of the trainers live outside of the city because why wouldn’t they?

My dream trainer would come to my apartment once a day, pick up the dog and maybe as a bonus the trainer would have a soup of the day.

34 replies
  1. Connie Davis
    Connie Davis says:

    This is fascinating about soup. I love soup and there are two soup restaurants in Cleveland Ohio where I live. One is Souper Market and they have a flexible menu and at least locations. They have been around for 20 years and as far I can tell they are doing well. It is unlikely any of them went to BU business school. The other one is a chain called Zoup they have a few locations. They both have salads. They also have been in this area for at least 10 years. Maybe it’s a Cleveland thing 😉

  2. Cassandra
    Cassandra says:

    San Diegan replying here. Souplantation was a soup and salad buffet like Golden Corral without typical main dishes. They were successful from 1978 through the early 2000s. They eventually went bankrupt, but it wasn’t a bad business model. The name is offensive. The ultimate closure was due to the self-service model post-pandemic. Surely, had they remained open, they would have had to (finally) change the name.

    I agree with your business model research thesis, but your historical facts don’t support your premise. People of all types ate at the Souplantation despite the offensive name.

    • Penelope
      Penelope says:

      Oh, I’m sorry. This is such a terrible post for me to be misunderstanding the problem with Souplantation. Usually I can just delete the area where I mess up. But this time it’s like, the whole area. I did consider that I shouldn’t be writing about the Embrace because I’m too high risk for being ignorant about race.


  3. Bostonian
    Bostonian says:

    Maybe the students from BU business school had no intention of opening a restaurant. Maybe their assignment was to do market research, and the idea was incidental.

    It’s not like the idea is innovative. There are dozens of soup restaurants in the Boston area. Most of them are Asian, and specialize in a particular style, such as Pho, Ramen, Soondubu-Jigae, or Hot Pot. But there are a handful of Western-style soup restaurants too, for example:

    New England Soup Factory, Newton, since 1995;
    Spoodles Soup Factory, Belmont, since 2015

    • Penelope
      Penelope says:

      Hey, Hot Pot is my son’s favorite restaurant, and it’s literally how we picked where we live – he picked the building next door. I AM RUNNING MY LIFE AROUND A SOUP RESTAURANT AND I DIDN’T EVEN REALIZE IT.


  4. Sorsha
    Sorsha says:

    Hey Penelope!
    Interesting info about the soup kitchen. Dog training is equally, or more, about training the owner. Check out Zak George youtube channel. I used it to train my dog and I’d never done it before.

    • Penelope
      Penelope says:

      I love Zak! I used one of the videos he did with his girlfriend in my autism course to show how autistic women are terrible at masking even though we think we’re great at it.


  5. Graham
    Graham says:

    I once hatched a plan with a friend to open a fondue restaurant. It would have been as successful as Souplantation I suspect. Fortunately, I was too idle to follow it through. The upside is that my two dogs are very well trained and both enjoy my homemade soup.

  6. Lindsay
    Lindsay says:

    Oh Penelope. Those students were trying to do an assignment. They probably have a target number of responses they’re supposed to try get. They’re probably two of many who are all out trying to get responses to these specific questions. There’s a very high chance they don’t care about the viability of a soup restaurant. There’s a very high chance they has nothing to do with designing the research and they don’t give a *** about it. Maybe their professor is just trying to show them how market research surveys work. When you didn’t actually answer even the very first question, they knew you’d just be a waste of their time so they cut it off. This was a case of you failing to know the right social skills.

    • Laura
      Laura says:

      Agreed, these kids didn’t care about the soup restaurant idea. They identified themselves as students to give context this is a school project and not an actual business idea.

  7. Dajana
    Dajana says:

    Except dog trainers don’t train dogs, they train humans. They teach them to be consistent and clear with their dogs so the dog understands wth the human wants.

    Yes they can borrow your dog and it will behave with them but you’ll just undo the work when the dog returns.

    In a way it’s a great business idea because you’ll never stop needing the dog trainer if they train the dog and not you.

    • Penelope
      Penelope says:

      This is so depressing. It’s like the nanny TV shows. So fun to watch the parents never get trained. But so bad to be the untrainable parent.


      • Dajana
        Dajana says:

        You’re not untrainable!

        It’s like when you coach writing. You need someone to watch you train your dog and tell you where you’re messing up.

        Editing then repetition.

  8. Kitty Kilian
    Kitty Kilian says:

    Why approach elder women? I once overheard a homeless guy who was begging in front of our library advise a friend to go for older women, as they gave the largest alms.

  9. Laura
    Laura says:

    There is a YouTube channel all about a dog walking service that picks dogs up in a little bus, buckles each one in their assigned seat, and then drives them off for outdoor adventures.!it looks so nice I briefly considered moving to Alaska just to use their services. There isn’t anything like that near me.

  10. Matthew
    Matthew says:

    I believe this is the fourth picture of your dog.

    Previously he was lying down indoors, in front of a restaurant with Z, and walking along a street in the South End.

    What is the dog’s name?

  11. Caitlyn
    Caitlyn says:

    I loved souplantation as a kid because it was unlimited dessert and they had jello, which we didn’t have at home. I honestly don’t remember ever seeing any soup, though I’m sure it was there. The last time I went was like 2017 and I guess it went out of business a few years ago.

  12. Jay
    Jay says:

    Souplantaion/Sweet Tomatoes was popular and loved by many and suffered, like many restaurants and particularly buffet styles, due to the pandemic. They are reopening! Why are you warping facts to your own issues/psyche? That is easy enough to research. Not everyone who eats soup has an eating disorder – please. A million eye rolls. Perspective and facts!

  13. Kay
    Kay says:

    I read this post as nothing to do with soup or dog training, really. More a post as a distraction from uncomfortable feelings.

    From other replies, it’s interesting to learn about the trainers training the person, not the dog. That makes sense. Perhaps it’s also because the dog reflects the owner in some way. I have a neighbour who can be a bit aggressive and both of his dogs have been quite barky too. And a friend who worries about her dog’s behaviour in attacking other dogs, and her dog is way more aggressive when she’s on a lead and ‘protecting’ her owner, than she is running free. My dog can be a wary of other dogs and humans but is very happy to see people she likes (which oddly includes the aggressive neighbour). Still trying to work out how my theory works here…

  14. Jim C
    Jim C says:

    I love this post. Partly it’s because of your insight into marketing and the silly quest they had sent this group of silly students on. It’s also because I grew up on a ranch with Australian shepherds, and my wife and I have an Aussie now. They’re extremely intelligent dogs, and they have a strong herding instinct. Ours wants my wife and me to be in the same room all the time. If not, we should be in adjacent rooms so he can keep an eye on both of us. If he can’t do that either, he hangs around with the alpha male (me).
    But, anyway, I love the article. You’re right, of course. The students should have noticed that here was someone who knew something about the material they were assigned to learn about. They should have hung around to listen to what you had to say! Free knowledge and insight shouldn’t be passed by.

  15. Jim C
    Jim C says:

    It’s really unfortunate that the word “plantation” in this country has acquired associations with slavery and its
    associated evils. If you go to Europe, in countries like Denmark and Germany, you’ll find timber plantations. No slaves, in fact almost no one hanging around them except now and then to tend the trees. After a few decades they harvest the trees for lumber and plant anew. No slaves, no dirt-floor cabins, none of that other dreck.
    By the way, Potlatch had a poplar plantation in eastern Oregon near Boardman. It’s not there any more. I suspect the cost of irrigation was too much. It’s now a dairy farm and a row-crop operation. (You can’t harvest poplar trees a year after they’re planted. If you have to pay for the irrigation water every year, it eats into your profits after a decade or two.)

  16. WorthSteeling
    WorthSteeling says:

    P, the link you shared (about Souplantation’s client base was people with eating disorders) had one comment from one person who had bulimia, who happened to purge once at that restaurant. It was from 2016. What other data helped shape your declaration that the restaurant “catered to people with eating disorders”?

    • Penelope
      Penelope says:

      I had an eating disorder, and Souplantation sponsored me when I was a a professional beach volleyball player, so I was at the Brentwood location all the time because I never had money to eat anywhere else. And people who have eating disorders have radar like gay people have radar. You could just sit at the table all day and watch girls binge at the buffet and throw up the bathroom.


      • WorthSteeling
        WorthSteeling says:

        C’mon now. This is trump-level logic. No actual research or evidence, spun to fit your singular narrative, applauded by people who never dare fact-check for themselves. Oh – and an open letter! This is straight out of the Orange Dotard’s playbook.

        Your dog is beautiful.

  17. Linda
    Linda says:

    When I first read your line about Souplantation catering to the eating disordered, I thought you meant that it was intended as therapy for autistics with low muscle tone who had a hard time eating soup because of lack of facial fine motor control, and I was not surprised it went bankrupt. Totally different thing! Also, I had never heard of this issue until I had my kid and started meeting all of her probably autistic friends.

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