Meet the World's Biggest Fruit – and the Company Using it to Change Vegan Food Options

By | Small Business

There are lots of reasons for being a vegan. Maybe it makes your body feel better. Or perhaps you don’t approve of killing and eating fellow Earth-creatures.

But vegan or not, sometimes a guy just has to have a “burger.” Or a slice of “bacon.” Or some “BBQ.” Meat substitutes have been around forever, but, well, most of them are still “substitutes.”

Pulled Pork, Shredded Chicken

Meet the Jackfruit. Native to Southeast Asia, a mature jackfruit can weigh close to 100 pounds; it is, in fact, the world’s largest fruit. Cut through its spiky exterior and you’ll find a mild-flavored, nutrient-dense, plant-based substance that makes a perfectly convincing meat substitute. According to Upton’s Naturals, the first company to make pre-seasoned, heat-and-serve, natural jackfruit available in the U.S. market, when it’s cooked up young and seasoned properly, this tropical fruit has the delectable texture and taste of pulled pork or shredded chicken.

Jackfruit is just the latest breakthrough product from Upton’s Naturals. Based in Chicago, Upton’s Naturals is an independently-owned natural foods company that focuses on meat alternatives and vegan values.

Starting in 2006, Dan Staackmann, the company’s founder, began using flavored, wheat-based seitan to prepare a line of products that’s sold in stores across the country. Stores like Whole Foods. Currently, Staackmann is launching the first-to-market, seasoned and ready-to-eat jackfruit products in the United States.

The Weirdo

Staackmann has been a vegan since he was 15. “I grew up on your standard American diet,” he explains. “Pepperoni pizza, and half gallons of ice cream served for dessert. Then, when I was 15, I just had a wake-up call and knew that was not for me. Really, it shouldn’t be for anybody.”

Staackmann became a vegan to respect animal rights and environmental issues more than for health reasons. For the first 15 years he was an outcast. “You’re the weirdo,” he laughs. “You’re the one who goes to family dinners and gets picked on…”

Nonetheless, Staackmann stuck to his guns. He started an organic horticulture business, but it didn’t work out. He paid the bills by buying and selling high-design furniture via auction.

More Tooth. More Chew

Meanwhile, Staackmann found himself becoming increasingly passionate about veganism, and he wanted to do something in food. Seitan [pronounced say-tan, or sigh-tan] was one of his favorite meat substitutes, but at the time there were no local producers in Chicago. In fact the only place you could get it was at restaurants, where the line cooks made it themselves. Staackmann saw a business opportunity that fit perfectly with his vegan values.

Most meat-analogues are made from soy. Tempeh is fermented soy. Tofu is coagulated soy milk. Seitan, on the other hand, is made by rinsing all the starch out of wheat flour, so what you have left is quite meat-like in texture. “Sometimes seitan can be a little spongy,” says Staackmann. “Ours is firm, with a little more ‘tooth’ and 'chew.’” Also, compared to soy products, seitan is not highly processed.

“It’s got a neutral flavor,” Staackmann explains. “We make traditional seitan, flavored with garlic and soy sauce, but we also have five other flavors that are quite unique. We’ve got bacon. We’ve got chorizo you can use for tacos or nachos. We’ve got Italian, which is like Italian sausage and goes great in pizza or pasta.”

According to Staackmann you can use seitan in any recipe that calls for meat. “It’s like chicken chunks. You can put it in stir fries. Salads. Wraps.”

Whole Foods Was Easy

Staackmann steered clear of retail marketing while he built the business; he sold his seitan directly to a handful of Chicago restaurants. People loved it! So he saved up some money, opened a home equity line of credit (back when it was probably too easy to do that) and bought some retail packaging equipment.

As it turns out, getting the packaged Naturals into Whole Foods was easy.

“I just walked into the store,” Staackmann remembers. “I knew there was one grocery buyer who was a vegan, so I said, 'I’ve got this product we’ve been selling to restaurants, and would you be interested?’ And he said, 'Of course!’”

Whole Foods gave Staackmann a shot in seven Chicago stores. Then he hooked up with a local distributor that serviced 20 Whole Foods stores in the greater Chicago area. Once Whole Foods saw that sales of Upton’s products were doing well, they offered him shelf space across the entire region, which at the time was 40 stores.

“In every market,” says Staackmann, “you need an anchor like Whole Foods to activate the distribution, because no distributor is gonna take your product unless they’ve got at least ten, 20 stores they know they can sell it to. And that’s pretty much how we did it, step by step, region by region.”

Bribe Some Forest Rangers

In 2010, Staackmann ate a Nepalese jackfruit curry – and fell in love. At the time you could only find jackfruit in Asian specialty stores, in 20-oz. cans full of preservatives. Worse yet, once you got the can home it took one to three hours to cook down into something you would eat. Staackmann wondered how hard it would be to bring a jackfruit product to market that was pre-seasoned, pre-cooked, and ready to eat. No one else was doing that. It didn’t hurt that jackfruit is also gluten-free, oil-free and soy-free.

Staackmann searched for a long time to find a supplier that could provide enough product for the U.S. market. “It took getting on a plane and flying all over India and Southeast Asia,” he says. “They’d say things to me like, 'We might need to bribe some forest rangers to go in and get the jackfruit 'cause it’s growing on private landowners’ property…’ That didn’t sound promising.”

Eventually he hooked up with a reliable supplier in Thailand, and jackfruits started rolling toward Upton’s production line – just in time for a sudden explosion of interest in the stuff. Once again, Staackmann and Upton’s Naturals were in just the right place at just the right time.

No One’s Laughing Now

Upton sells 11 products: six seitans, four jackfruits, and a burger that just launched in March. The products aren’t hard to find, either. Upton’s biggest national distributor is still Whole Foods, but that’s just the beginning. Vitamin Cottage Natural Grocers is another large one. Also Wegmans. Staackmann still sells to lots of independent natural grocery stores and co-ops. Finally, the Breakroom is a small restaurant in Upton’s factory building in Chicago.

The world has changed in recent years for Staackmann’s “weirdo” food business. Would-be investors call on the phone, and pester the staff at trade shows. He probably gets two investor emails a week. “At Natural Products Expo West there were 15 to 20 investment groups trying to get me to schedule meetings,” he laughs. “But I’m still the sole owner, and I’ve self-financed everything, so it’s a little difficult for me to let go. Not that I’d sign over any kind of majority share.

"But man, what a change! When I was starting out, I’d go to a bank and tell them I’ve got this idea, and we’ve got these sales, and when I’d ask for a loan they’d laugh me out of the office.”

No one’s laughing now.

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