Interviews

Upton’s Naturals: “Building a Brand That is On Pace With Transformation Means We Are Still Here and Still Viable”

Upton’s Naturals is an independently owned company and a trailblazer in the plant-based food industry, established in Chicago back in 2006.

Initially launching onto the market with an Italian-flavored seitan, the company has since expanded its offering to include a range of flavors and products, such as the Updog, a plant-based hot dog alternative, and various jackfruit innovations.

Founders Daniel Staackmann and Nicole Sopko, also known for her work with the PBFA, focus on simplicity, vegan values, and the use of real, recognizable ingredients. Due to this, and despite the fluctuating dynamics of the plant-based market, the company has continued to thrive, recently reporting a consistent upward trajectory in sales, growing 600% from 2013 to 2022. Uptons states that its slow and steady approach has been key to the brand becoming the best-selling seitan brand in the United States.

​​​​Our last Q&A with Nicole and Dan was in 2018, and it’s quite an understatement to say the plant-based industry is a vastly different space today, as we approach 2024 with a different outlook.

Could you share the story of how Upton’s Naturals came to be and the key principles that have guided its growth over the years?
Dan: Upton’s Naturals officially began in 2006. As a long-time vegan, now 30+ years, I wanted to start a business that might allow for some activism, and food is a great way to do that. Seitan has always been a favorite of mine, and at the time there was just one national brand, and a few restaurants making it locally. I didn’t have a culinary or extensive business background, and had only made seitan at home one time, but thought it was worth a shot.

Uptons-Naturals-Seitan
© Uptons Naturals

I got space in a shared kitchen and just figured it out. Once I was pleased with the first two flavors, Italian and Chorizo, I pitched a few restaurants in Chicago and was lucky enough to have some of them decide to put one or both items on their menus. Side note, all of the restaurants that I originally sold to that are still in business still have our products on their menus!

Once the concept was proven, I got my own space and launched 2 retail SKUs with Whole Foods in 7 stores in Chicago and slowly expanded from there. I’ve consistently reinvested our profits back into the business to grow at a sustainable pace, adding a region or two every year until we had national distribution. That’s the big secret: only do things you really believe in and try not to rush.

Why seitan?
Dan: The initial choice to work with Seitan is one that I’ve stayed committed to over the years. Rather than trying to reinvent the brand to meet every trend, I’ve made the choice to stick to what we do well. That works for us because consumers know what they can expect from our products. Even as we’ve expanded into new items, the philosophy of using simple ingredients and minimal processing has stayed with us. And now, in spite of other seitan products entering the market, our seitan is now the top-selling in the country, something that we’re incredibly proud of.

Upton's Naturals Founders
©Upton’s Naturals

You mentioned that “Upton’s Naturals is the only self-funded, independently owned meat alternatives brand distributed nationally.” What advantages and challenges have you faced by not seeking outside investment?
Dan: The number one advantage is that we don’t have to answer to anyone but ourselves.
The disadvantage has been that during the plant-based protein boom of 2017-2022 we had an extraordinary amount of pressure from retailers to pay up for outrageous promotions and show constant innovation or risk lost placement because there were so many brands racing to enter the space with tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars to burn. Thankfully, we survived, and some of that pressure has let up, but not completely.

Can you speak to how Upton’s Naturals’ slow growth strategy has allowed the company to survive the tumultuous times for the plant-based industry?
Nicole: Over the past 18 years, we’ve worked hard to build a sustainable business that has proven capable of withstanding the ups and downs of the current marketplace. Many entrants to the industry are seeking a magic bullet of innovation that will cause that overnight change, but the reality is that the current food system can’t change overnight. It’s too big and engrained and there are too many stakeholders with differing priorities.

Upton's Naturals vegan hot dog
© Upton’s Naturals

There is, however, plenty of evidence of slow, sustained change. Growth has continued in the plant-based industry over time as not only consumers, but distributors, retailers, and the rest of the links in the chain transform. Building a brand that is on pace with transformation means that we are still here and still viable, even as a self-funded company in turbulent times.

What is Upton’s strategy when it comes to introducing new products and expanding distribution?
Dan: We only launch products that we love and truly feel the market is lacking. As for distribution, decisions related to expansion usually end up in the hands of retailers, so building strong relationships with the retailers who carry our brands is important to us.

“Many entrants to the industry are seeking a magic bullet of innovation that will cause that overnight change”

They know that we are a smaller, self-funded company and can’t always commit to a huge outlay of funds in order to promote the products. However, we do work extremely hard to reach new consumers and let people know about our products. This is where our consistency with our brand and our message continues to benefit us, as we have a strong network of people who have believed in us and supported us as we’ve grown.

Since Upton’s inception, how have you witnessed the broader plant-based food industry evolve, and how has the company Upton’s Naturals evolved to meet the shifting dynamics of the market?
Nicole: The plant-based space tends to focus harder on trends than we do on those elements of our industry that are tried and true. The challenge for business is not to get too caught up in what’s hot right now and instead to build a brand based on who you are.

Uptons Buona sandwich
Uptons Naturals X Buona

As long-time plant-based consumers (before the term “plant-based” was even being used), we have managed to build a brand that offers products that we enjoy and the kinds of things that we want to see in the market. The value of that authentic connection to the space where you are doing business cannot be overstated. When we do make changes, it is because of a perceived ongoing need, but not a short-term desire or change for change’s sake.

Upton’s Naturals emphasizes “minimally processed foods.” Could you elaborate on the role consumer demand for clean-label products with whole food ingredients has played in the company’s success? How has this focus on product quality influenced your innovation and manufacturing processes?
Nicole: Rather than being focused on creating one-to-one replications of traditional meat, we’ve prioritized recognizable ingredients and simple processes. For us, the focus is on making foods that taste good and that meet the needs of a variety of eaters.

“The challenge for business is not to get too caught up in what’s hot right now and instead to build a brand based on who you are”

The spectrum of plant-based eaters is extremely broad and so too should be the spectrum of available products. Our mission has us focused on foods made with ingredients that you can recognize and processed in ways that are uncomplicated.

Upton's BLT
©Upton’s Naturals

Congratulations on securing new retail listings at Publix and expanding into Sprouts Market locations. Can you speak on the significance of these retail expansions to Upton’s?
Nicole: Retail expansions are huge for us because retail access remains a huge barrier to reaching new and existing customers. If people cannot easily access our products, then they can’t buy them. Unfortunately, the retail landscape has gotten increasingly complicated over the past several years as many new, well-funded brands are willing to pay to access those consumers and as a result, some retailers have come to expect those payments.

As a self-funded brand without that kind of marketing budget, we remain grateful for those relationships with retailers that are focused on building mutually beneficial, long-term relationships over those that are seeking a quick buck.

What’s next for Upton’s Naturals? Where would you like to be in another two years?
Dan and Nicole: We’d love to just be able to keep on the same path we’ve been on!

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