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Upton's Natural Chicago cafe Photo credit: Upton's Breakroom

Manufacturer-turned-restaurateur finds advantages in new business

In addition to making meat alternatives, Upton's Naturals runs a small vegan cafe that doubles as a test kitchen attached to its Chicago production facility. But is this model one to replicate?

Upton’s Naturals had existed for seven years as a manufacturer when the owners decided to add a new dimension to their vegan foods business. They opened an on-site cafe at their Chicago facility that company President Dan Staackmann now describes as part cafeteria, part consumer interaction space and part test kitchen. The cafe opened in 2013, and while Staackmann said it’s proved valuable for Upton’s, he wouldn’t necessarily recommend other brands follow their lead.

"They are two vastly different businesses. I would say that if we didn’t have the manufacturing facility attached to the restaurant, it would have been a lot more difficult," he said, adding that they benefited from keeping the cafe a small operation that’s easier to manage than a full-size, sit-down restaurant might have been. Staackmann explained part of the value it provides is that Upton’s is able to feed employees at the cafe, a task that is otherwise a challenge given that its location doesn’t offer many food options. Another perk is that fans of the brand now have a place to go and visit the company, whether they’re local residents or tourists from out of town.

Those may have been reasons enough for the company to open Upton’s Breakroom, but it has also served as an informative test kitchen. Upton’s tested its Classic Burger on the menu there—and saw it perform consistently as a top-seller for several months—before deciding to launch it as a retail product. Staackmann said the company now plans to launch another new item at Natural Products Expo West that also fared well during a trial run at the restaurant, but details of the product remain secret, including whether it will fit into one of the brand’s existing categories or be a new product type entirely.

But the needs and operations of the manufacturing and restaurant businesses are so different that he doesn’t think Upton’s necessarily has a model for other brands to replicate. "Our [concept] was modest: we said we’re just going to open this tiny speck of a restaurant, interact with the neighbors, see what people like and feed our team here. It was not super high-risk."

Anyone looking to cross over in either direction, from manufacturer to restaurant or restaurant to manufacturer, needs to do extensive research and planning work before making that leap—although Staackmann said there could be an exception for (very) temporary pop-up shops.

"I think it can be tricky, for sure, to pull off. I think we had just the perfect setup here," he said. "I definitely wouldn’t recommend opening up a standalone restaurant to other manufacturers. I don’t know how much you’re going to gain by that. A pop-up shop is a little different. A pop-up can be fun."



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