BREAKROOM A one-on-one conversation with an industry impresario
Jon Springer: Upton’s Naturals makes
a variety of plant-based items primarily
using jackfruit or seitan. What should
food retailers know about these
Nicole Sopko: Both jackfruit and seitan
have been enjoyed as meat alternatives
for thousands of years. Inspired by their
wonderful history, we have adapted
them for the modern palate with familiar
seasonings and flavors. Using only simple
and recognizable ingredients, both clean-label product lineups are incredibly versatile
and great for use in a variety of vegan
dishes. Young, unripe jackfruit has a very
neutral taste that absorbs flavors well and
shreds easily, making it a great wholefood substitute for pulled chicken or pork.
Despite its simple ingredient list, seitan has
an impressively meatlike texture and is both
high in protein and low in fat without the
cholesterol associated with meat.
Your packaging and branding, featuring
illustrations of mustachioed figures from
the 19th century or, perhaps, 21st century
Brooklyn, is quite distinct. What are its
origins and the meaning of it?
The mustachioed figure is Upton, and he
was designed by friend and local Chicago-based artist Johnny Sampson. We have a lot
of fun with the facial hair on each package
and it definitely grabs people’s attention,
but there isn’t too much significance to
it other than that we like the turn-of-the-last-century aesthetic Upton brings to
our packaging. The only way it’s tied to
flavor profile in any way is that the Upton
characters on both the Traditional Seitan
and Original Jackfruit are clean-shaven
because the varieties are unseasoned or
What have you found to be the most
challenging aspect of cracking the
traditional supermarket channel?
There have been a few challenges: One
is just waiting for acceptance from this
channel of the popularity of and demand for
products like ours, but there’s also the issue
of where to merchandise these products
and also moderating our own growth as a
company. Consumers want options, and
Nicole Sopko is VP of Upton’s
Naturals, a Chicago-based meat
alternative company known
for pioneering flavored seitan
and kick-starting the jackfruit
food trend in the U.S.
Your brand operates a vegan
Chicago restaurant (cleverly called
“Breakroom”). What do you recommend
we order the first time we visit?
There is no wrong answer here, but I eat
the Togarashi Bowl a few times a week.
What was your first job?
I worked at the counter of a local dry
cleaner in high school.
Cubs, White Sox or other?
I’m not a Chicago native, so it’s going to
have to be the Detroit Tigers.
the recognition of that reality has definitely
led to an increased interest in our category
from the traditional retailers, but consumers
also need to know where to look for these
products. If your store adds an alternative
meat section but it’s buried in a corner of
produce, consumers might not even know
that those products are available. Finally,
for us, as a privately owned brand without
investors, we are self-funded and have
worked hard to keep our growth reasonable
and to agree to only what we can actually
supply. This has led to a slower growth
model but also a sustainable and functional
There’s been some criticism out there
that for all its lifestyle benefits, many
meat alternatives are ultimately
processed foods. As a founding member
of the Plant Based Foods Association,
how would you like to see that debate
I think we need to first define “processed.”
When we’re talking about our seitan, a
meat alternative made from wheat protein,
we often describe it to people as “about
as processed as a loaf of bread.” A lot of
meat alternatives are this way—they are
“processed” in that they are no longer just
their raw ingredients, but the preparation
and cooking processes they use would not
be considered foreign to the average person.
Products in our industry are all made of
plants that we’re choosing to process simply
and efficiently in our production kitchens
instead of taking months to do so through
the bodies of animals.
Read the full conversation at WinsightGroceryBusiness.com.