Dan Staakmann, Nicole Sopko, Upton Naturals



Part I – Dan Staackmann & Nicole Sopko

Dan Staackmann is the Founder and President of Upton’s Naturals – a completely vegan, seitan production company based in Chicago, Illinois. Founded in 2006, Upton’s Naturals has seen tremendous growth every year that it has been operational. With an incredibly loyal customer base and ever growing retail distribution, Staackmann has succeeded in building and maintaining one of the country’s seitan production companies. Vegan for over 20 years, Dan has been a long time advocate for veganism, animal rights, and environmental sustainability.

Nicole Sopko is the Vice President of Upton’s Naturals – a completely vegan, seitan production company based in Chicago, Illinois. Sopko is a certified yoga teacher of 8 years and has been vegan for over 17 years. Nicole started helping out around the Upton’s office a few years ago and her dedication to the growth of the company, and passion for their products, quickly propelled her into the role of V.P. where she now oversees multiple aspects of day-to-day operations. She also operates two yoga centers, one of which is located within the Upton’s Naturals factory building.


Caryn Hartglass | 00:27
Hello everybody I’m Caryn Hartglass, and it’s time for It’s All About Food. Can you believe it is October 29, 2013. Getting through another month. Time just keeps marching on, doesn’t really care about what we are doing whether we are taking it slow or taking it fast Tik Tok Tik Tok Tik Tok and I’ve been really loving it because I think autumn is my favorite season. Autumn in New York, there’s a song I’d like to sing about that and it is been such a perfect autumn I don’t know about for the plants, for the trees, for the ground, but for me it’s been great. And I’ve been outdoors a lot really enjoying it and I hope you have been too wherever you have been. I want to say I feel like I’ve slacked a little bit this week usually when I have guests on they have a book to read and sometimes I read one big heavy book and sometimes I read two because I don’t like to have guest on when I don’t read their book or I’m not familiar with whatever it is they want to talk about. Well today it’s kind of fun because I didn’t have to read I just had to eat and eating was good so let’s talk a little bit more about that I’m going to be talking with the people from Upton Naturals Nicole Sopko and maybe Dan Staackmann we’ll find out but both of them are involved with Upton Naturals. Stan is the founder and presidents of Upton Naturals, a completely vegan, seitan production company based in Chicago, Illinois. Founded in 2006, Upton’s Naturals has seen tremendous growth every year that it has been operational. With an incredibly loyal customer base and ever growing retail distribution, Staackmann has succeeded in building and maintaining one of the country’s seitan production companies. Vegan for over 20 years, Dan has been a longtime advocate for veganism, animal rights, and environmental sustainability. And then Nicole is the Vice President of Upton’s Naturals a completely vegan, seitan production company like I said before. She is a certified yoga teacher of 8 years and has been vegan for over 17 years. Nicole started helping out around the Upton’s office a few years ago and her dedication to the growth of the company, and passion for their products, quickly propelled her into the role of V.P. where she now oversees multiple aspects of day-to-day operations. She also operates two yoga centers, one of which is located within the Upton’s Naturals factory building. Welcome to It’s All About Food.

Nicole Sopko |

Caryn Hartglass |
Nicole how are you doing? And Dan?

Nicole Sopko |
Yeah we are both here.

Caryn Hartglass | 3:11
Okay first question Dan. How do you say your last name?

Dan Staackmann |

Caryn Hartglass |
Stack-man okay so I didn’t do a bad job of it, just checking. So as I’m reading your bios Nicole I’m saying how do you do all of that, two yoga centers, V.P. of Upton Naturals? And I’m thinking, oh, it’s clearly obvious you’re a vegan. Vegans are amazing.

Nicole Sopko | 3:32
You know it’s easy to do a lot when none of it feels like work.
Caryn Hartglass | 3:37
Yeah that too. Okay so I wanted to talk about a number of things. So what you make is seitan and maybe you want to tell my listeners, I’m sure they all know but, maybe some don’t. What is seitan? Just before Halloween and people might be getting their devil costumes together and wanting to be Satan. Seitan is not connected to the devil Satan.

Dan Staackmann | 4:03
it’s not?

Caryn Hartglass | 4:04
I don’t think so. Maybe you can tell me otherwise but I know some people pronounce seitan like Satan sometimes and it makes people very confused

Dan Staackmann | 4:16
well seitan is a centuries old Asian product. It’s made by rinsing away all the starch in wheat flour. What you have left is very high in protein and low in fat and it is somewhat meat like in texture.

Nicole Sopko | 4:35
So no relationship to the dark lord.

Caryn Hartglass | 4:38
To the what?

Nicole Sopko | 4:39
To any dark lord.

Dan Staackmann | 4:41
Although the phone company did give us the prefix here of 666.

Caryn Hartglass |
No way!

Dan Staackmann |

Nicole Sopko | 4:49
That’s our exchange in our neighborhood here.

Caryn Hartglass |
Oh your right 666. That’s a little weird. Did that give you chills when you got that number?

Nicole Sopko | 5:01
Well I mean they gave us the option to deny it but if that’s what they want to give us that’s what we should have.

Caryn Hartglass | 5:10
Yeah go for it. Well you’re turning Satan into good stuff, seitan.

Nicole Sopko |

Caryn Hartglass | 5:18
You know you mentioned Dan that this is something that people have been making for centuries and the way that people made it by rinsing the starch away from flour I don’t know if people can really visualize this – but back in the old days when there wasn’t Internet and I was this lone vegan in my world and I discovered seitan, I must of read about it in a magazine or something but I went out and got some regular white flour and mixed it with a little water, I’m following the instructions I am rinsing the milky water away and there is like a little solid left over kind of thing and then you rinse it again pour off the milky water you rinse it again until finally you just have this chewy gummy solid thing and that’s the gluten or the seitan and it was quite a procedure and when I did it I was left with like next to nothing just this little plop but we’ve come quite a way with making it easy and affordable and you’re making it for us.

Nicole Sopko | 6:28
Yeah we do all the hard work for you. By the time it’s in your house it’s seasoned it’s ready to go, and all you have to do is heat and eat.

Caryn Hartglass | 6:41
Now this is a product that is great for people in transition. Especially from getting away from feeling like they need meat in their diet and moving to plant foods. I mean I know for myself it really helped me there was a time when seitan either like a seitan piccata just like a traditional meat dish where you could make it vegan was essential.

Nicole Sopko | 7:12
Yeah – I mean a lot of people who are regularly purchasing our products are not vegetarian, are not vegan, seitan is still something that they find palatable and it’s easy to use, it’s not too feared or not so intimidating either.

Caryn Hartglass | 7:37
We’ll talk a little bit more about your product in a moment but I’m curious about how the company got started. How you decided it was seitan you wanted to make and if you could give me a little detail about getting the company going because from time to time I like myself and to encourage my listeners to think about where their food came from beginning to when it got to their plate. And if you really do a good job to be sitting there for a very long time before you actually put food in you our mouth because our food goes through all kinds of hoops and travels sometimes if you’re not growing it and just eating something fresh. And building a company, a food company isn’t that easy and keeping it going is not easy so maybe you could talk a little bit about all that.

Dan Staackmann | 8:31
Sure. Well as you mentioned I’m a vegan of over 20 years and early on especially seitan was always one my favorite foods. I knew that I wanted to do something with food, I didn’t have a food background or a business background I just kind of wanted to do something on my own and with food and just decided to give it a shot. So I got a shared kitchen space with a friend of mine and we just started experimenting. The only seitan that I had made previously was out of box mix and it did not go very well, so I was pleasantly surprised when we settled on our first product which was the Italian style seitan. You know we started out very slow growth just in a few restaurants. Once it sort of proved itself there we approached some retailers, invested in the packaging and just kind of branched out from there. A few stores in Chicago a few more then a region then another region and just kept at it.

Caryn Hartglass | 10:00
Where you doing something else at the same time or just that?

Dan Staackmann | 10:04
Yeah I mean technically I guess I was unemployed but I had kind of a run-in the mill office job prior to that and when that ended I knew that wasn’t the place for me. So I’d been buying and selling modern designs to kind of pay the bills. I’m actually a world-class garbage picker. It’s not as easy as it used to be but I was just kind of doing that and experimenting with seitan and luckily the seitan worked out.

Caryn Hartglass | 10:49
Right. Speaking of picking garbage there’s a gold mine here in New York City different days people put out amazing things on the street.

Dan Staackmann | 11:02

Caryn Hartglass | 11:02
Oh my goodness and if I had the time a big warehouse I could be collecting and refinishing and selling and there’s just some really gorgeous things that people just don’t want any more it’s incredible. Anyway, back to the product at hand.

Dan Staackmann | 11:21

Caryn Hartglass | 11:21
When I discovered your product, it was quite a few years ago actually at the first Chicago Veganmania.

Dan Staackmann | 11:30

Caryn Hartglass | 11:30
You were there.

Dan Staackmann |11:31

Caryn Hartglass | 11:32
And I was there. And I got to sample some of your ware.

Dan Staackmann | 11:38
And you were there early.

Caryn Hartglass | 11:39
Yeah I was a speaker or hosting the speakers or something upstairs, I’m not sure if it’s in the same place it was originally but it was quite a surprising event I guess no one knew how many people where going to turn out and it was a phenomenal turn out.

Dan Staackmann |11:57

Caryn Hartglass | 11:59
There is a good market for this product and there’s so many different things you can do with it, so I tried a number of the different flavors. I think my favorite was the chorizo (that’s a popular one) so there is different you can get a crumble version or you can get like a chunky more solid version.

Dan Staackmann |12:24
Yeah, but the traditional is the little chunkier and then the chorizo, ground and Italian are more finely ground they got more of an organic shape, and then we have a bacon that is sliced in well bacon strips

Caryn Hartglass | 12:44
Oh, I haven’t tried that yet I didn’t see that when I was in the store. mmm.

Nicole Sopko| 12:48
Mmmm… the bacon is our newest product and the one people had demanded the most from us over the years knowing that we made it for food service but not for retail

Caryn Hartglass | 13:02
Ah, isn’t that funny we such a thing about bacon and wouldn’t it be great or it is great that there are alternatives to exploiting the pig

Nicole Sopko | 1:15
Whatever we can do to get people to eat seitan instead of pigs we are happy to do it. And I found that even us vegans and vegetarians we’re not immune from some of the bacon fetish

Caryn Hartglass | 13:30
Sure well you know the BLT concept is really a very satisfying sandwich and if we can have something that comes close to it that’s a beautiful thing, without the exploitation and the cruelty and the suffering.

Nicole Sopko | 13:45

Caryn Hartglass | 13:46
Yeah I like it.

Nicole Sopko | 13:48
In Seitan, all the sales of bacon seitan, five percent of those we donate to farm sanctuaries for the pigs there.

Caryn Hartglass | 13:58
Very nice. so you benefit in many ways, if you buy this product you get something that’s delicious and you also give back to some good work. Very nice. So okay let me ask you a difficult question, it’s not that difficult but some people can’t eat wheat and gluten is in the news more and more I’m not sure that everybody who talks about wheat and says they can’t eat it really can’t, you know you don’t know how much of it is blown out of proportion, how much of it is a trend, how much of it is real. But there are a number of different foods soy, wheat, that get some bad PR and I just wondered how you felt about that.

Dan Staackmann |14:53
It hasn’t really affected us very much I mean certainly we do get people at in store demos or different events that come up and say they’re gluten free

Caryn Hartglass | 15:07
And what are you doing about it?

Dan Staackmann |15:09
Yeah nothing I mean we are gluten full so you might want to just keep on walking.

Nicole Sopko | 15:16
We’re usually happy to offer people a button or some other item that we have on the table that does not have gluten

Caryn Hartglass | 15:28
Yeah I mean there are some people out there who just like to complain but there’s a lot of variety out here out in the world and that’s the beautiful thing and I think one thing we discover as vegetarians and vegans when we eliminate animal foods it’s not a diet of deprivation what happens is we open the door and we discover all of these incredible wonderful plant foods out there and some people may be allergic to a handful of them but there are still so many other like sometimes people say they can’t eat soy for some reason and they’re concern about their protein and I tell them you don’t have to eat soy there are so many wonderful foods out there and so for those who have an allergy or a problem with one food or another too bad but we live in a very vast beautiful world with lots of options.

Nicole Sopko | 16:22
We try to make good food with simple ingredients and you know maybe it’s not okay for everybody but for most people it works for them and we’re doing the best we can.

Caryn Hartglass | 16:37
Yeah no absolutely I just wondered because you know I hear things all the time about wheat.

Nicole Sopko | 16:45
We hear sometimes but I mean in general they’ll know what they’re getting from us. We’re a company that makes seitan.

Caryn Hartglass | 16:55
And like you said it’s centuries old. It was like some Buddhist monks or something that created it. Is that correct?

Dan Staackmann | 17:06

Nicole Sopko | 17:07
That’s all we understand. The thing about seitan, this isn’t some fake food that we created to try and replicate anything else this food has been around for a long time it’s not made in a laboratory it’s just real seitan

Caryn Hartglass | 17:30
You know that’s a good point because I mentioned soy before and I like the minimally processed soy foods, tofu, tempeh, soy milk, edamame, but then there are these heavily manipulated processed soy products isolated soy protein where the protein in the soy has to go through all kinds of manipulations in a laboratory before it gets into the food and as I mentioned before as Dan mentioned and I followed up, the way to make gluten is a very simple gentle process.

Nicole Sopko | 18:05
yeah our process uses just water, so the wheat protein is extracted using just water no chemicals nothing else no neurotoxins like are used in the process of soy protein extraction so It’s safe for the people who are eating it but it’s also safe and not harmful to the people who are working in the plant extracting the protein.

Caryn Hartglass | 18:38
Now I have a question, who is Upton?

Dan Staackmann | 18:42
Upton is the man that I did not want to be myself.

Caryn Hartglass | 18:50
what does that mean?

Dan Staackmann |18:53
he is a fictional character, and he is our number one salesman.

Nicole Sopko | 19:03
Dan is very humble and doesn’t want to put his own face or his own name on the products so he created Upton to hide behind.

Caryn Hartglass | 19:12
Oh I see well Upton is rather dashing. With very nice mustache,

Nicole Sopko |
Oh yeah.

Caryn Hartglass | 19:18
I like him very much and it kind of gives us that artisan old world feeling

Dan Staackmann |19:24
Yeah and we also figured the name of the company would sound a little more interesting as Upton naturals as oppose to Dan Seitan.

Caryn Hartglass | 19:36
I don’t know. It’s got the rhythm and ring to it. Alright just a little question Nicole, where does yoga fit into the world of seitan?

Nicole Sopko | 19:48
I don’t know, you know part of the teachings of yoga are not to harm anybody and I think part of my work in being able to make seitan more readily available and being able to give people a choice to not eat anyone you know really plays into my yoga practice, some days my yoga practice is trying to do my best in whatever part I play in keeping this place running, that’s enough for me.

Caryn Hartglass | 20:34
Okay now, what do people do who are interested in finding your product but don’t see it in their stores?

Nicole Sopko | 20:43
We have on our website a great little form that you can print out and bring to wherever it is that you shop and let them know that you would be interested in the product and also in addition to that if you send us an email, there is an email address on that form, if you sent us an email we’ll send you a little surprise in the mail as a thank you for doing us that favor.

Caryn Hartglass | 21:13
Mmm surprises I like surprises. Okay I took the chorizo seitan and I did a number of different things with all the products I tried but this was my favorite. I’m a big soup eater and I made a soup this week that had a barley miso broth with little turnip cubes, peas, onions and I found this sweet potato starch noodles kind of makes a queer noodle really fun and added some of the chorizo crumbles in there and it was an amazing soup. I’d never seen anything like it and It was really wonderful mix.

Nicole Sopko | 22:0
Dan is making a face like he might like to come to your house for dinner.

Caryn Hartglass |22:10
Just let me know when you’re in New York you are more than welcomed and we are always cooking up great things here.

Nicole Sopko | 22:15

Caryn Hartglass | 22:17
okay so what else before I let you go, anything you want to add to what we talked about.

Nicole Sopko | 22:28
I think we’d just like to add in the past year people who have been following us on social networking may have seen the progress of us constructing our new building in Chicago so we’re in a brand new building that we build in the Westtown neighborhood of Chicago that also has a small café in it. So we have a little store front and we call it Upton’s break room since it’s in our plant and we thought that was sort of funny and since where everybody who works here eats so we call it the break room and people who are visiting Chicago are totally welcomed to come visit us in the break room, we have a great menu of sandwiches and bowls and we have vegan soft-serve we have bake goods that are made by cookbook author Kelly Peloza so it’s a great place here that we’ve created in Chicago and we’d love it if people come see us.

Caryn Hartglass | 23:27
That sounds great. I’m looking at the menu right now; you got a fried bacon mac and cheese with bacon Seitan. Sounds good.

Nicole Sopko | 23:40
Yeah, It’s a recipe that Dan’s mother when he was a child would always make out of leftovers, some kind of leftovers meatballs from the day before, she would fry them in a pan and they’d get a little crispy and so that’s where our bacon mac comes from, inspired by Dan’s mother’s cooking when he was a child.

Caryn Hartglass | 24:05
Mmmm yeah, well it sounds very very comforting and I haven’t been to Chicago in a while but I know where I’m going the next time I get there.

Nicole Sopko | 24:11
We can’t wait to see you.

Caryn Hartglass | 24:71
Yeah great. Well thank you, thank you for what you’re doing for the vegan movement, keeping us fed with tasty good things.

Nicole Sopko | 24:26
Thank you so much for having us

Dan Staackmann | 24:28
Yeah thank you

Caryn Hartglass | 24:25
You’re welcome. All the best to you and the website is Uptonsnaturals.com. Wow okay that was good so definitely if you get to a store checkout… well they have on their website where to buy so if you can’t find something near you then you’ll have to print out their sheet and bring it in to your favorite health food store and tell them to get some. I think it’s time to take a break what do you say let’s take a quick break get yourself a little beverage or something and we will be back with my next guest.

Transcribed by Alma Zazueta, 11/9/2013

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