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Pitching soup

Minnetonka, Minn. — Like a pitcher facing a starting lineup, Jim Wheeler has stared down some powerful forces in the struggle to grow his specialty food company.

Wheeler, who spent two years pitching in the Detroit Tigers association, is in his fourth year of running Soup 2000 Inc. The company markets Cabin Cuisine soups, snacks, gift foods and Mama’s One Pot Meals — soup mixes from Minnesota-grown vegetables, potatoes and wild rice.

Wheeler says there are three essentials for success:

Manufacturing: “Regardless of brand or label, if you can’t fulfill orders, you can’t make it,” Wheeler says. After a few balks, Wheeler found Northwestern Foods in St. Paul. The co-packer provides “close control of manufacture for all my soup mixes.”

Packaging: “I started with a package that was not grocer-friendly.” With AURI’s help, led by Lisa Gjersvik of Waseca, “I developed a new gusseted, stand-up, shelf-ready and retail-friendly package.”

Marketing: “I tried to (make sales) without having the first two buckled down,” Wheeler says. Now that manufacturing and packaging have improved, “it’s easy to market. I’ve had an increase in acceptance from groceries and gourmet/gift shops. The packaging has opened up a lot of doors.”

The brand’s convenience is also a natural for campers and canoeists. Large soup batches can be mixed up in minutes, one-cup versions in seconds. The Soup 2000 line is both earthy and gourmet: the Web site touts Roasted Garlic Soup Toppers, for example. “Just because you’re camping doesn’t mean you shouldn’t eat in style.”

Wheeler takes his soup mixes and snacks to specialty food trade shows in New York, San Francisco and Chicago. He’s also “making an aggressive move” to make private label foods for other companies, as well as convenience foods for office cafeterias.

Direct sales are handled through the Soup 2000 Inc. Web site,