Upton's Naturals succeeds the slow and steady way: 'I feel like I can do more with $100,000 than some of these larger players can do with $100m'
Upton's first two products were its Italian sausage and chorizo seitan, which founder Dan Staackmann brought to local Chicago restaurants and Whole Foods stores in the Chicago area in the early 2000s.
Then in 2015, the company launched "the world's first packaged seasoned jackfruit" and has continued to expand with its line of packaged vegan mac and ch'eese products, canned soups, and a slew of other plant-based products covering all areas of the meat alternatives category including bacon, hot dogs, and sausages.
"In terms of what's motivated us to expand in those particular directions, it's always been personal choice," said Staackmann who as a vegan for the past 29 years, has approached new product development by following his gut with input from his team internally on what products he believes will succeed.
'Part of it was timing, part of it is my personality'
Unlike many other plant-based brands that have accepted outside investment to help grow their businesses, Upton's Naturals is entirely self-funded and doesn't have the added pressure as a growing business to answer to anyone, said Staackmann.
"When I started 15 years ago, I couldn't even get a bank to give us a vehicle loan to make deliveries," he recalled.
Staackmann acknowledged that the lack of investment was due to timing and the novelty of a plant-based foods startup, along with the lack of consumer awareness for meat alternatives such as seitan.
"Most investors didn't know what the word 'vegan' was, and I believe the term 'plant based' hadn't even been coined yet. In many ways, I had the luxury of there not being 100 multinational organizations trying to get into the space when I did," he noted.
"So part of it was timing, and some of it is just my personality," he said.
"I feel like I can do more with $100,000 than some of these larger players can do with $100m. But that's just how I grew up and what I've dealt with in my lifetime," said Staackmann, who took out a home equity line in 2005 to build his first commercial production space.
Today, there is a lot more investor interest as the plant-based foods movement grows at lightening speed with new brands and products hitting the market. But Staackmann intends to stick to his original business model that has worked for the brand even if it has felt like slow-going.
Staackmann said he has been extremely financially conservative by reinvesting whatever money the company generated directly back into the business.
"I just keep trying to get to the next thing... whether it's jackfruit or soup or a new piece of equipment. I would rather keep the business interesting than have that amount of fleeting wealth," he said.
"I feel like there's not a lot of time for patting myself on the back."
600% dollar sales growth
That steeliness and conservative internal focus has paid off. Hardly an emerging brand anymore, Upton's experienced 600% dollar sales growth between 2013-2020 and became the #2 best-selling seitan brand in the Natural and MULO channels (SPINS 52 weeks ending 6/13/2021).
And the brand is continuing to roll out new products on a regular basis. Its plant-based hot dog, the Updog, has grown by 27813.3% in dollar sales in the latest 52-week period, according to SPINS data.
While there have been a handful of other plant-based hot dogs to come out since, Staackmann believes that its Updog is the only vegan hot dog that has the same "snap" as a traditional meat-based hot dog.
A number of its other products, including its canned soup line, are also performing well and exceeding original expectations, added Staackmann.
"We launched [the soups] first with Whole Foods, and now we're seeing a bunch of additional placements this fall, and we haven't even been a part of a full soup season," he said.
"We're one of the few authentic brands left in the marketplace, at least in terms of our size," claimed Staackmann.
"Many have been gobbled up by very large companies that maybe don't have the same passion or insight in terms of what vegans really want. What you're getting from Upton's is based on first-hand experience," he said, noting how the company keeps its ingredients deck as simple as possible leaning on spices to achieve the best flavor profile and taste.
"We're pretty strict with our ingredient decks. We won't use any yeast extracts or, quote unquote, 'natural' flavors. We really believe in as clean a label as possible."
Looking ahead, Staackmann said that the plan is to continue down the same path and that the company will be launching a few new innovations in the near future.
"It's another area where we've identified something that isn't currently available, and hopefully, it'll see store shelves come early next year."
The company also recently inked a deal with DOT Foods to expand its presence in foodservice.