Somewhere in the greater Cleveland area, Melissa and Matt Trahan stumbled from punk rock to creating vegan snack treats for those who want the chewy drool-inducing flavour of jerky without the cruelty caused by the meat industry.
Pleather is vegan, non-meat, super-tuff seitan jerky, and its texture has captured the tastebuds of vegans, vegetarians and people who want to cut back on their meat consumption.
Sales are good enough that Melissa has been able to take on Pleather as a full-time job.
“I still have a day job,” said Matt. “I mostly help do packaging on the weekends, or maybe I will swoop in if we are down some people, and someone needs to do dishes. I will pop over after work and do that.”
They have added a second oven to increase production, and Melissa has enough people helping, so it goes a lot quicker than when they began.
“We are just looking for more ways to expand,” she said. “Everyone we have is great, and we are super-efficient, and we have almost doubled our speed.”
Matt compared getting into Pleather to getting into the local Ohio punk scene. He said he grew up in the sticks and didn’t even have cable, so when Matt moved to Kent, he discovered people creating zines and music who were approachable and cool with showing him how it was all done.
“It was something beyond entrepreneurship,” he said. “It was more just taking what you got and doing something with it. I mean, that’s the grassroots, and I think that’s my favourite part of the whole underground punk scene. What we’re doing with Pleather is not as organic and fun as taping over bible doctrine cassettes with the sound of you cursing and running the vacuum cleaner. There are a lot more regulations. You don’t want to make anybody sick, and you want it to taste good for people. What we’ve done with punk and what we’ve done with Pleather, we have put out something good that people like and makes them feel good. Punk – commiserating with other miserable souls, which feels good, as crappy as I just described it.”
Melissa said Pleather was created by accident.
“It was an experiment that went well, and it took off from there,” she said. “So, really, we didn’t intend to start a business.”
Melissa had never eaten jerky before Pleather. It was not her go-to snack.
On the other hand, Matt had been a meat-eater living with a vegetarian for a long time. Then he was diagnosed with high blood pressure and cholesterol, and he was living and cooking with a vegetarian. He knew that he liked that diet he began to ween himself off meat.
“I missed beef jerky of all cravings, and I kept thinking about the seitan, how it slices and decided I’m going to try making jerky out of this stuff,” he said. “It worked. I didn’t think it would work, and I was laughing because I expected to fail.”
“We were pretty sure it would come out like a cracker,” said Melissa.
“Or worse, like a rock,” said Matt.
After that first experiment was a success, they made bigger batches to see if it would last like jerky when they were going camping. They laughed and said they would keep a bag of it in the car for months, eat it and not get sick.
“It didn’t get gross or anything,” said Matt. “After a while, we started to share it with friends, and then the conversation started being ‘you should start a business.’”
Next, they approach a local natural foods store.
“It was great. They loved it,” said Matt. “They tried it and said, ‘let’s do it,’”
That store was edged out of business by chain stores, but Pleather’s popularity grew.
They now have three flavours with more on the way.
“All of them came out as we were hoping for, and most of the tweaking is involved when you are trying to batch it up or when you taste it and think I wish it had more of this or a little less of this – tweaking it to get it where you want it to be,” said Matt. “It’s like any spice mixture. When you cook a lot, you have to know which spices go with which foods.”
They started with black pepper flavour because that was the flavour that Matt missed the most. Then they took input from friends to decide which flavours to try next.
“It takes a long time whenever you make a new flavour,” said Melissa. “You have to go through some hoops to ensure it’s tested. You send off your recipe, portions, nutritional information, labelling, etc. There is a lot to it. You can’t just say, ‘hey, I made this, there you go, it’s great, put it out on the shelf.’”
Matt said they also have to work it into the production schedule because all three flavours already have their fanbase.
“If you run out of stuff, you are screwed,” he said. “You have got to make sure you have enough in production and then start sneaking in the next flavour, and for us, it’s like trying to catch up with a running horse.”
The pandemic has slowed down plans for new flavours because some supplies have been hard to source, but as things settle down, they plan to add another one, but they were not ready to announce it yet.
Production began in a shared commercial kitchen space where they scheduled their time.
“It was a pain in the butt because you had storage on one floor, and all the work was done on another, so we had to carry everything up and down,” said Melissa. “We’ve had our own facility for about a year and a half, and hopefully, we don’t outgrow it too quickly.”
Although they do not sell directly through Canadian stores yet, Pleather is shipped internationally from Pleathervegansnacks.com. Following recent consultations, they found they might have to redo packaging and potentially alter the product’s name and catchphrases for Canadian stores.
“We would have to do the bi-lingual packaging,” said Matt. “It’s not that much more, and it’s just a matter of getting the packaging printed and ensuring there is enough interest. We would have to make sure we have our foot in the door for a good amount of commerce for it to make sense to make that extra packaging. We don’t have a problem with it, and it’s just a matter of having the money to do so.”
Matt says he is looking to talk to someone who would be a business mentor to help with marketing.
“Sometimes it feels like we are spinning our tires, but we know we have something very good that could be successful because it has a proven record,” he said. “It’s just getting someone to take notice.”
On what Matt refers to as the artistic or pleasurable side of making Pleather. It’s the only vegan jerky that is remotely like cowboy style, gas station, old-fashioned, gnaw on it, drool a little bit to eat it jerky.
“That’s what I missed when I stopped eating meat,” he said. “So many people already like that, so if you are thinking of giving up meat or just cutting some out, we have a product that will hopefully fill a niche for you.”
Melissa said they receive emails from people often who used to eat meat or grew up on a farm raising cattle and haven’t eaten meat in years but missed jerky.
“They tried ours and liked it and said it gave them that same feeling without the murder,” she said.
“When I look at things like veganism or vegetarianism, it’s harm reduction to me,” said Matt. “I don’t think I will conquer the entire meat industry in this lifetime, but at the same time, it is a damaging industry, as are other forms of large-scale agriculture. By weening yourself off some things like red meat and poultry, you can lower that demand and lower the amount of agriculture being devoted to that. On the other hand, you are also cutting out a certain amount of unnecessary cruelty in the world.”
They want to keep Pleather a reasonably priced, accessible product.
“It is handmade, so it’s not easy,” said Melissa. “It is time-consuming to make, but we want people to eat it. We don’t want it to be priced so far out that no one will ever eat it.”
“As we scale up, I would like to decrease the price,” said Matt. “I don’t want it to be a specialty health food snack, and I want this to be competitive with any other jerky or snack product you see at a gas station.”
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