Chicago seitan king Dan Staackmann founded Upton's Naturals five years ago with a straightforward directive. "We keep our ingredients list as simple as possible," he tells me.
Staackmann's recipes skip the mystifying "isolated soy proteins" and "natural flavors" found in national brands, opting instead for "actual flavors, based on traditional recipes, with things like garlic, onion, and soy sauce."
That pared-down sensibility coupled with iconic packaging by Chicago's Johnny Sampson and the Delicious Design League has helped Upton's build a small but expanding empire of seitan. The company recently relocated to West Town from its longtime home in Skokie and is looking to widen its distribution in 2012 to include the northeast, mid-Atlantic, and all of the west coast.
During its first three years, Upton's was a two-man operation kept afloat by Staackmann and his former partner. "Now we're at six [employees]," he says, "and planning to add another three to five in the next year."
Yes, peddling vegan ground beef-, Italian sausage-, and chorizo-style seitan is pretty niche—and Staackmann admits that the company started with a very slow-growth model. But when my local divey taqueria started offering a variety of Upton's as a taco filling, it became pretty apparent that the seitan slingers are serious about having a direct impact on the local veg scene while showing the rest of the country a greener, friendlier Chicago.
"We try to visit every store where our products are sold, letting people know we're not a faceless corporation," Staackmann says. "We believe in veganism and aren't just doing this for the money."