Motown Soup Proves That Soup Can Change the World
“We never would have dreamed of anything like this,” says Dan Karlin as he’s sealing bags of dry soup mixes in the basement of Trinity Lutheran Church in Utica. A few other volunteers are at work measuring ingredients, chopping dried cherries and slicing dried shiitake mushrooms.
Karlin is talking about Motown Soup, an all-volunteer nonprofit venture that produces and sells nutritious meals in a bag. Over its 11-year history, Motown Soup has donated over $600,000 to charities, including $140,000 last year, its biggest year yet. The money goes to support soup kitchens, shelters, food banks and free clinics.
Karlin, Motown Soup’s founder, says it all started as a sideline to his wife’s pottery booth at craft shows. The first product was beans. “Beans were inexpensive and I like bean soup,” he says. “We started with a white chicken chili.”
In 2003, Karlin invited eight ministries to get involved. One of them was the Detroit Rescue Mission, which provided some manpower and leadership. “They encouraged us to become our own nonprofit,” he says. Trinity Lutheran, where Karlin was employed at the time, provided a licensed kitchen, storage and many of the volunteers.
“They’re very kind to us,” Karlin says. “They don’t charge us, but we pay them a couple hundred dollars a month. It goes into the ministry.” Volunteers come on Tuesdays and Saturdays. “We’ve had groups of 50 to 70. We ask people to let us know in advance if they’re coming,” Karlin says. “Mitch Albom brought 70 people down one day. They made 3,000 packets in three hours, and we were desperate for the inventory at that time.”
There are now 18 varieties of soup, 12 other products including dips and sweets and attractive gift boxes. All are dry mixes designed to be ready quickly. “We discovered that people wanted it tonight for supper. They don’t want to soak the beans,” Karlin says.
All ingredients are purchased individually in bulk, whenever possible. “We buy things locally when we can,” Karlin says. The soups are ready in 15 minutes—just add water. The original-size package makes two quarts but some mixes now have a one-quart option.
The products are subject to labeling laws and list allergens and trans fats. Some even have extra voluntary nutritional analysis, and labels are coded to allow tracking should any ingredient ever face a recall. “We’ve never done MSG in our soups,” Karlin says.
To keep up with consumer food trends, Motown Soup offers gluten-free products, but they can’t be certified gluten-free because the church kitchen is also used to prepare meals to feed the homeless. In response to the increasing popularity of vegan and paleo diets, Karlin is experimenting with ingredient combinations that will follow those trends.
Karlin retired from his paid job in December 2015 and puts in 20 to 30 hours a week at Motown Soup. “Everything here is one-at-atime,” he says. “It’s a long, tedious process. We have sit-down jobs and we have stand-up jobs. It’s archaic, but it works.”
Volunteer Dorothy Ryskamp, a lifetime member of Trinity Lutheran, affixes labels to the packages. “It sounds like a simple job it, but it has to look right,” Karlin says. Ryskamp says she enjoys helping people in need. “When I was growing up, I was in need. My mom was a widow, and we got Christmas baskets and stuff. So now I’m paying it back.”
Another volunteer, Joyce Dorland, attends a different church but became acquainted with Motown Soup when she came to Trinity Lutheran to serve meals to the homeless. The church is one of nearly 90 in Macomb County that are part of Macomb County Rotating Emergency Shelter Team (MCREST). That’s where she met Karlin. She now comes most Sundays to serve meals, then every Tuesday to do whatever is needed at Motown Soup. “I enjoy doing this,” she says. “It makes you feel productive and the proceeds go to needy people. I’m retired, so it keeps me out of trouble.”
Dan Kennedy, a GM employee from Shelby Township, can’t remember how many years he’s been volunteering. He says GM makes a contribution to Motown Soup based on the hours he volunteers. The more he volunteers, the more money Motown Soup receives.
“It is good stuff; we get a lot of repeat customers. They look for us,” Karlin says. Chicken Pot Pie soup is the top seller; sugar cookies come packed with Michigan-shaped cookie cutters. Phyllis’s Phenomenal Michigan Cherry Scone Mix is named after a Berkley woman who sent the recipe unsolicited. “We sample wherever we go. It gives us a chance to talk to people. The wonderful part is handing out the checks. It is just amazing.”
Motown Soup is available by mail, online and at the Yellow Door in Berkley, Catching Fireflies in Rochester and Art-Is-In stores at Partridge Creek, Briarwood Mall and Twelve Oaks.
Find out more at Motown Soup