Upton’s Naturals has been making vegan meat in Chicago since 2006. On the way to success as a mission-oriented, vegan brand, you will acquire extensive knowledge. The newly launched Liberation Kitchen project aims 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 Upton’s businesses: Liberation Donuts – a vegan donut shop that Upton’s opened in 2020 – and Upton’s Breakroom, a coffee shop that opened in 2013 and was originally intended to serve hot meals to its workers at the vegan meat plant serve.
Liberation Kitchen will continue to serve all of Breakroom’s favourites, along with Liberation’s old-fashioned pie-style donuts – a favorite of Upton’s founder Dan Staackmann – but with an added twist of new products and menu items from resident companies.
The new combined concept was prompted by Upton’s move to a larger facility where those companies operated from a large underutilized space, Natalie Slater, Upton’s marketing manager, tells VegNews.
“Dan always had this dream of giving other emerging vegan brands access to a certified kitchen and factory space — all of the things that were a struggle for him when he started the company 16 years ago,” says Slater. The new concept offers all of these things and more for new brands looking to expand.”
Liberation Kitchen’s menu
Upton’s Breakroom is known for its comfort food favorites, and Liberation Kitchen’s menu will continue to feature popular dishes like fried bacon mac (made with Upton seitan bacon); Chicago Style Updogs (made on Upton’s Vegan Hot Dogs); and Nacho Plate (featuring Upton’s chorizo, along with all the classic nacho toppings).
For dessert, Liberation Kitchen’s rotating donut selection is complemented by oat milk-based soft serve, sundaes and milkshakes, and pie slices from Chicago’s Pie Pie, My Darling and more.
This month, Snackie Chan Chicago – a concept by local vegan artist Ash Lemasters – will be in residency 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 take a step beyond the pop-up experience, with ongoing foot traffic and inventory maintenance. It also gives Breakroom and Liberation Donuts customers a chance to try something new.
“It was child’s play for us [Lemasters] to be the first person to pilot this program,” says Slater. “We know she prepares delicious food and her concept is great.”
Shaping the future of vegan nutrition
After Snackie Chan, Liberation Kitchen will feature other local brands and is open to consumer goods, take-out and restaurants or other concepts that have shown some success and demand but are struggling to take it to the next level. Currently, the company is sorting through a multitude of applicants and giving priority to fully vegan companies – as opposed to companies with vegan offerings – to build the next generation of successful plant-based brands.
“We’ve been in business for 16 years now… and we still feel like we’re just getting started,” says Slater. When Upton’s started, its vegan meats were labeled “vegan/vegetarian” to convey its message in a muted way to the limited number of consumers looking for vegan products. Now, Upton’s ethically vegan statement is proudly printed on its packaging — a symbol of how far veganism has come, Slater says.
“There’s certainly been tremendous growth, and that’s allowed us to really grow, too,” says Slater, explaining that Upton’s has since grown on retail shelves in many categories, including packaged mac and cheese. “Upton’s is one of the few privately owned vegan brands that is self-funded and has national distribution… we have a passion for supporting other brands with similar missions and vegan values. Any support we can offer in terms of our expertise, factory space and integrated retail is a stepping stone for us to try to create more successful, independently owned vegan brands.”
On the retail side, Upton’s vegan products are now distributed in about 5,000 retail outlets and the brand isn’t slowing down any time soon. The company recently added three flavors (Minestrone, Crimson Lentil and Chick & Wild Rice) to its range of savory soups, will launch its first vegan holiday roast at Sprouts this year, and is always looking to expand distribution to reach more consumers Plant-based foods.
“Our vision for the future is, ‘How do we make it even easier to be vegan?'” says Slater.
While large food companies like General Mills, Kellogg’s and Nestlé are dominating the food industry and diversifying their portfolios with plant-based offerings, the landscape of food manufacturers is changing with access to consumers through non-traditional channels like social media. With its new Liberation Kitchen, Upton’s hopes to give vegan brands a bigger foothold so they can boldly expand their concepts to bring even more choice to the plant-based food movement.
“There’s so much leeway and blue sky for new things and I think people are ready to support these brands,” says Slater. “It can be really difficult when you’re trying to take your products down the traditional retail route because, like it or not, you’re competing with your competitors, but maybe Nestlé too. But that doesn’t mean you have to do it that way. There are now so many ways to have a brand and sell your product.”