Austin resident Trudy Wilson had been working as a caregiver for almost 30 years when a chance meeting at her sister’s summertime snowball stand changed her life. That’s where she met one of the managers of Upton’s Naturals, which had just opened a 42,000 square-foot facility at 1826 N. Lorel Ave. in Austin.
“I asked, ‘What ya’ll got going on?’ They said, ‘Well, we make vegan food, come and work with us Trudy,'” Wilson recalled. “I said I’d give that a try.”
Wilson went through an agency and after a three-month training session, in November, she began working at the site on the production line making vegan food.
“They explained to me the natural ingredients for people that don’t eat meat. So I was like I wanted to learn more about it,” Wilson said.
Upton’s Naturals was created by owner and president Dan Staackmann, who, like his partner and vice president, Nicole Sopko, had been a vegan for 20 years. Seitan, a wheat-based meat substitute, was a favorite food, but it was sometimes hard to find.
“So he started making seitan. He started selling it into a few restaurants. When it seemed like it was working and people were interested, he launched a product for retail and it has been going like that ever since,” Sopko said.
The vegan food market has been growing thanks to the availability of the products. According to Nielsen, 39 percent of Americans said they are trying to eat more plant-based food. As of last year, almost 20 percent of the dollars from the food and beverage industry came from products that were plant-based. Sopko said the market has gone into two notable directions.
“It’s gone in the way that people are using the available science and available technology to create meat alternatives, also dairy alternatives and other alternatives that more closely mimic the animal counterparts,” Sopko said. “I think that the market has also gone in the other way using more minimally processed food products that have ingredients that are easier to recognize. I think consumers appreciate having that choice.”
Upton’s first retail product came out in 2006 and seven years later, Upton’s Breakroom, on 2054 West Grand, opened to the public as a place where people could buy the vegan products and get counter service breakfast and lunch. The success of Upton’s had Staackmann and Sopko looking to expand. They wanted to stay near their West Town location and the Austin space, purchased last year, seemed like a perfect place — in part, because in the past the building was set up for food production.
“Prior to choosing to build this building on Grand, we had looked for existing food companies. Because you want to buy a building that’s already built out for food. It can be extremely expensive to process food,” Sopko said who added the property has empty land and a small raised ranch house. Although there’s a large space for dry storage, the plans are to reconfigure some of the space to include cold storage and adding new equipment
It’s a short distance from the Upton’s West Grand location and it’s only a three-minute walk from Trudy Wilson’s Austin home. She’s encouraged friends and neighbors to apply and work at Upton’s.
The company, which has close to 70 employees, plans to move its office staff to the Austin location by early 2019 and plans to add another 10 to 20 positions in 2019.
Wilson said she knows of at least two other Austin residents who work there and tells people to direct message her on her Facebook page to get more information on working at Upton’s.
“We should bring more businesses into our community, so there are jobs out there for teenagers and adults. I really believe the crime rates will go down, because they have nothing to do,” Wilson said.
Wilson, who’s been active in her Austin community as a block club president and tutor, wants to grow with the company. She said that she hopes to eventually go into the management side of the business.
For Wilson, her role with the company is more than just a job and a paycheck.
The Upton’s experience has changed her life. Wilson said that she’s embraced a vegan diet, averaging at least three vegan meals a day. She also cooks vegan dishes for her family and has given up pork. The next thing to go? Beef.
“I gotta take it slow now,” Wilson said with a laugh. “I really appreciate them opening this warehouse in our community, giving us a chance to change our diet. You can be healthier, so I think that’s great,” Wilson said. “I want to stay with the company because I can reach out from there and maybe change lives, as well.”
Upton’s Naturals is currently hiring. For more information on job opportunities, visit firstname.lastname@example.org or search through details of current openings on Indeed.com.
Correction: A previous version of this article mispelled the name of Dan Staackmann and Upton’s Naturals. Austin Weekly News regrets the error.