Upton’s Naturals is an official sponsor of Filipino Fusions, our new Digital Residency program. Our supported artist, Kiam Marcelo Junio, will be cooking from another dimension as Jerry Blossom using Seitan in place of traditional meats.
Upton’s Naturals owners Dan Staackmann & Nicole Sopko interviewed by Kristina Daignault and Michael Soto.
DS: I went to grade school and grew up with a lot of Filipino kids. I’m curious to see what the food will be, because as a child, it was disgusting. Bowls of black cow’s blood that you dip fried meat into.
MS: I’m sure there’s a sense of “use everything” mentality.
DS: There’s obviously a lot of rice and lumpia wrappers.
KD: I think we’re going to be doing that. I’m not sure if it’s a sweet or savory thing, though.
DS: I think it can go either way.
KD: Basically, any recipe that would traditionally have meat in it, we’ll be substituting seitan. They’ll be doing at least one dessert. It’s going to be some kind of ice cream thing, but I guess we could try seitan with it.
MS: Well, Kiam eats meat but doesn’t cook it.
DS: Is there any reason Kiam chose vegan?
KD: They don’t like to prepare meat.
KD: Tell us about what made you want to start Upton’s and how it came to be.
DS: Well, I’ve been vegan for over twenty years, and I wanted to do something with food. Seitan was one of my favorites. I realized there weren’t a lot of other people making it commercially. I figured it out, I guess. I didn’t have a food or business background.
KD: So your first batch of seitan that you made in your kitchen, how did that turn out?
DS: The first batch that I made, not for this business, was out of a box mix, which was totally disgusting.
KD: It sounds really gross.
DS: It was really bad. It was extra spongy.
MS: I think I’ve had that.
DS: When I decided to start a company, we had some different equipment. Basically, we were starting from scratch. Everything happened on accident. It’s not like, “We’re going to use this equipment and this thing.”
KD: So did you have your trade secret process in mind when you started or you developed it?
KD: OK. So, maybe basically, how does seitan come to be?
DS: It’s made by rinsing away all the starch in wheat flour, so what’s left is wheat gluten.
NS: Traditionally, you would make a dough with just water and wheat flour, and then you put it under water and you wash it, and the starch flows out and the protein remains.
KD: How do you know when the starch is all gone?
DS: You just keep rinsing. It’s like… you see all the white…
MS: Like when you rinse rice?
DS: Yeah, exactly.
NS: When it’s clear, the starch is gone, and the dough will get a little heavier.
DS: It’s very wasteful. That’s why we don’t do it that way. We get our vital wheat gluten from the mill that separates it in an environment that allows the starch and bran…
KD: Oh, so you don’t separate it here?
NS: We get it separate. They wash it basically the same way, with water, but then somebody else uses the starch and somebody else uses the bran. Other people use that instead of rinsing it down the drain.
KD: Is all of this building you?
KD: Did you start here? Did you move here?
DS: I wish that we started here.
KD: Did you start in your basement or something?
DS: Uh, sort of. We were in a shared kitchen with some friends of ours. We experimented there on and off for a year and made enough to get a facility, which was in Skokie originally. And I’ll say we were there for five years.
NS: Until 2011.
KD: So this is super new for you?
DS: Yes, this is July.
NS: This whole building, construction started in December of 2012 and finished in July of 2013. We built this whole building from the ground up. This spot was a vacant lot for thirty years that we bought and remediated to some extent, and then built this building on top of.
MS: So you cook with Upton’s at home all the time?
NS: Conveniently enough…
DS: …this is home.
NS: We live on the third floor, so we eat here a lot.
KD: I would, too.
MS: If we’re coming over for dinner, what’s on the menu?
NS: I make lasagna.
MS: That sounds good.
KD: Well, what’s your favorite thing anyone’s made with Upton’s?
NS: Probably the Italian. The Italian beef sandwich. The recipe was originally Dan’s secret stash recipe that he would just make at the Superbowl every year.
DS: Not that I’m interested in the Superbowl.
NS: But we do like the food part of the Superbowl. Making the potato skins and stuff, and the dips, and sitting around and talking through the whole Superbowl. So Dan and I have the Italian beef every year for the Superbowl.
KD: So you like to cook?
DS: I do. I don’t cook as often as I used to…
NS: Now, with a restaurant downstairs.
KD: How many employees do you guys have now?
NS: We’re just under thirty right now.
KD: That’s amazing.
DS: It’s a lot, having gone from seven last year.
KD: Do you have an HR lady too?
NS: Now we do. She has other responsibilities. With a small company, you wear multiple hats, as they say.
DS: The cafe, it hasn’t helped my cooking, not just because it’s so readily available, but what am I going to make upstairs that isn’t already downstairs? It’s usually something with noodles. I’ll either go with pasta.
NS: Like Japanese noodles, miso noodles or something. Those are the two things we want to eat that you can’t get downstairs other than Lou Malnati’s.
KD: Man, if we had a restaurant downstairs, I don’t know that we’d ever make food. It’s just that we’re so busy.
MS: But then you’re living examples of the seitan diet.
KD: What can you make breakfast food-wise?
DS: We have a breakfast sandwich.
NS: We do muffins. We have a BLT, which isn’t 24-hour food, I feel.
DS: Sundays, we do a tofu scramble, and also we do a waffle plate.
KD: I’m more of a pancake girl, but I’m equal opportunity. But only with real maple syrup. Do you guys have real maple syrup?
DS: I thought about pancakes…
NS: Oh yeah, only real. We have a pretty strict ingredients list of what we’ll allow in anything. No weird fillers, obviously no high fructose corn syrup. No artificial flavors, no natural flavors. Just food.
KD: Sounds awesome.
DS: I was nervous about pancakes because even if you make the batter in advance, it seems like there’s more room for error with a pancake than a waffle.
KD: Maybe it’s because you just put the waffles in the machine, and they come out rightly shapen. There’s no pancake shaper.
DS: It’s hard enough when we have the special for everybody to learn how to make it.
MS: What about crêpes? I imagine you can make something that doesn’t rise as much and do a crêpe.
DS: I’ve never had a vegan one that was any good.
NS: I’ve never had a vegan one. I’ve never had a not vegan one either, but there’s a place in LA that does crêpes.
KD: I feel like that could be a challenge. We could develop the vegan crêpe and invite you to dinner. What do you think? We’ve mastered the regular crêpe action. We have the fancy pan and everything.
DS: Sounds good.
KD: What about a food truck? Mobile food?
DS: In the city of Chicago, it seems like it would be too much of a hassle.
KD: Do you guys pop up at events and stuff?
DS: In other cities, we do, occasionally, but not in Chicago.
NS: We’ll be doing more food-vending stuff this year now that we have the restaurant. We’re going to be food vending at the CHIRP Record Fair next month. We’ll be doing more of that. We do do pop-up. We’ll do a pop-up sandwich shop in the back of a vegan grocery store in Portland, and people will just…
KD: Go bananas?
NS: Yeah, we did a Taco Bell style gordita in the back of Food Fight, this vegan grocery store in Portland, and in two hours, I think we sold like a hundred gorditas. People just descended and disappeared. We did a sandwich shop there before. There’s a place in Brooklyn called Dun-Well Donuts. They do all-vegan donuts, so we did bacon donut sandwiches there for a couple of hours one night.
KD: That sounds awesome. When did you guys know that you were onto something?
DS: I don’t know, we had a pretty slow growth model. We started out with just selling the product to a few restaurants, and then once we were confident that people would eat the seitan, other than just us, we took it to retail, and again seven stores, then twenty, then thirty-five.
KD: Now how many?
DS: I don’t know. We’re in fifty states and Germany. So…
KD: I feel like saying congratulations even though you don’t even know me. That’s awesome.
NS: I’m not even sure how many. It has to be between 500 and 1,000.
KD: So no big deal, just a few. Got it. What are you plans for the future? Even more? Vacation? nap?
NS: There’s a chain of nine vegan grocery stores in Germany… and Austria? And so we’re going to visit all their stores in August. We’ll go to Berlin veg fest, and we’ll go visit all the stores in Germany.
DS: That’s the plan as of now. I think it’s just more of the same. Not too many more changes. The building was a big project, so I think we just need to make sure that we’re doing everything that we’ve been doing.
KD: Well, thanks for helping our project, we really appreciate it. And I have to say, speaking as a meat eater, I’m sorry, I love it, the seitan. The traditional is all we’ve had so far, and I’ve made it in lots of pasta dishes. I feel like I’m not missing anything, and I’m shocked, personally. Full disclosure, we have a photo of heart-shaped bacon on our website.
NS: You need to try some of the other stuff.
KD: Definitely. We need to branch out.
DS: The chorizo and the Italian are the most popular, so if you like the traditional…
KD: …then I’ll like the other ones even more?
NS: You can make a heart out of seitan bacon.
MS: Is it a bacon texture/shape?
NS: It’s just a rectangle.
KD: It’s kind of a squashy thing. The only one that’s kind of ground up, that doesn’t come in a flat piece, is the traditional.
DS: That’s generally bigger chunks, and then there’s the ground chorizo and Italian.
NS: And the bacon is the only one that’s sliced.
KD: Pre-sliced? Interesting.
NS: I think as a culture, we’ve accepted turkey bacon, so it doesn’t matter what protein your bacon is made of, it’s still bacon. Dan always says you don’t cut any chunk off an animal that tastes like that. It’s what you do to it that makes it what it is. If you make a vegan pastrami sandwich, there’s nothing that you cut off a cow that tastes like pastrami. You can make it out of any protein source.
KD: That is a valid point. Any other words of wisdom you’d like to impart to our audience?
MS: Where can people find you in Chicago?
DS: Whole Foods is the easy answer.
NS: There are also many independent grocery stores that are carrying our products.
KD: Do you guys have a “find us wherever” finder on your website?
NS: We do. We have where to buy (link:http://www.uptonsnaturals.com/where-to-buy/) on our website, and of course people can find us here at 2054 West Grand Avenue. People can come eat at, we call it Upton’s Break Room because it’s where we eat, where our employees eat. It’s as close as you can get. It’s the freshest seitan. It’s made right here. Of course people can come here, and hopefully, we’ll have outdoor seating in the summer. We always have different stuff going on here. We have events here. We have a small yoga space upstairs where we teach yoga by donation a couple of times a week. We’ll also do other stuff there. We’ll have cooking demos. We hope to do pop-up vegan fine dining. We travel so much for our job that we have the opportunity to eat at all these amazing restaurants all over the country, so we’re talking to chefs about coming to Chicago to do little pop-ups in our space.
KD: Well, if Kiam makes anything really exciting with your seitan, they can do a pop-up.
DS: He can give Uncle Mike’s a challenge.
MS: Yes! Seitan challenge.
In the meantime, try some Upton’s Naturals in one of these recipes!