Since 2006, Upton’s Naturals has been making vegan meat in Chicago. gaining vast knowledge along the way on how to succeed as a mission-driven vegan brand. Her newly launched project, Liberation Kitchen, seeks to share this knowledge with emerging vegan businesses through a residency program that gives them the opportunity to test their products and menu items in real time.
Liberation Kitchen is a merger of two businesses owned by Upton’s: Liberation Donuts, a vegan donut shop launched by Upton in 2020, and Upton’s Breakroom, a cafe that debuted in 2013, originally designed to serve hot meals to his vegan meat factory workers.
Liberation Kitchen will continue to serve all Breakroom favourites, as well as Liberation’s old-fashioned cake-style donuts – a favorite of Upton founder Dan Staackmann – but with an added twist of new products and menu items from the companies. residents.
The new combined concept was sparked by Upton’s move to a larger facility, where these businesses were operating from a large, underutilized space, Upton’s marketing manager Natalie Slater told VegNews.
“Dan has always dreamed of giving other up-and-coming vegan brands access to a certified kitchen and factory space — all things that challenged him when he started the business 16 years ago,” says Slate. The new concept offers all of these things and more for new brands looking to grow.
Liberation Kitchen menu
Upton’s Breakroom is known for its comfort food favorites and Liberation Kitchen’s menu will continue to serve popular dishes such as Fried Bacon Mac (made with Upton’s seitan bacon); Chicago Style Updogs (prepared on Upton’s Vegan Hot Dogs); and Nacho Plate (which includes Upton’s chorizo, plus all the classic nacho toppings).
For dessert, Liberation Kitchen’s rotating donut selection is complemented by soft oatmeal creams, sundaes and milkshakes, plus slices of cake from Pie Pie, My Darling, and more.
This month, Snackie Chan Chicago, a concept by local vegan artist Ash Lemasters, will be in residence at Liberation Kitchen offering “Chicken” Teriyaki Roll and Eggplant “Eel” Roll sushi, combo plates, edamame and Watermelon “Tuna” Poke bowls. .
The residency program allows companies like Snackie Chan to go beyond the fleeting experience with repeat customers and inventory maintenance. It also allows Breakroom and Liberation Donuts customers to try something new.
“It was obvious to us during [Lemasters] to be the first person to pilot this program,” says Slater. “We know she makes delicious food and her concept is great.”
Building the future of vegan food
After Snackie Chan, Liberation Kitchen will feature other local brands and is open to consumer products, take-out items and restaurants, or other concepts that have had some success and demonstrated demand, but are struggling. to move on to the next. level. Currently, the company is sorting through a variety of candidates, giving all-vegan businesses — as opposed to companies with vegan offerings — priority to create the next generation of successful plant-based brands.
“We’ve been in business for 16 years now…and it still feels like we’re just getting started,” says Slater. When Upton’s started, its vegan meats were labeled “vegan/vegetarian” to discreetly convey its message to the limited number of consumers looking for vegan products. Now, Upton’s vegan ethics statement is proudly printed on its packaging, a symbol of how far veganism has come, Slater says.
“There’s definitely been a huge evolution and it’s also allowed us to really grow,” says Slater, explaining that Upton’s has since expanded into many categories, including boxed macaroni and cheese, on store shelves. . “Upton’s is one of the few privately held, self-funded vegan brands with national distribution…we are passionate about supporting other brands with similar vegan missions and values. Any support we can provide with respect to our craftsmanship, factory space and integrated retail is a stepping stone for us to try to build more successful independent vegan brands.
On the retail side, Upton’s vegan products are now distributed in around 5,000 outlets and the brand isn’t slowing down any time soon. It recently expanded its line of hearty three-flavor soups (Minestrone, Crimson Lentil, and Chick & Wild Rice), will launch its first vegan holiday roast this year at Sprouts, and is still looking to expand distribution to give more consumers the access to plants. based foods.
“Our vision for the future is, ‘How can we make it even easier to be vegan?'” Slater says.
While large food companies such as General Mills, Kellogg’s and Nestlé have dominated the food industry and are diversifying their portfolios with plant-based offerings, the landscape for food producers is changing with access to consumers through non-traditional channels such than social media. With its new Liberation Kitchen, Upton’s hopes to give vegan brands more footing so they can boldly expand their concepts to infuse the plant-based food movement with even more choice.
“There’s so much open space and blue skies for new things and I think people are ready to support these brands,” Slater said. “It can be very difficult if you try to follow the traditional retail circuit with your products because you are, like it or not, in competition with your peers, but also maybe with Nestlé. But that does not doesn’t mean that’s the way you have to do it. There are so many ways to have a brand now and sell your product.