Stanley Chase III doesn’t look like a successful entrepreneur. With his fuzzy beard, hip glasses, and cool tee-shirt, he looks like he’s probably a bass player for a pretty good local band.
In reality, he’s the owner of a booming local business that’s poised to succeed in a big way on the national level: Louisville Vegan Jerky Company.
Stan started out with a simple vegan food truck named Morels.
Morels always felt like real stick to your ribs food, despite the absence of meat.
It didn’t feel fake or empty and neither does Stan.
Stan’s food comes from a personal place. You get the sense that he is trying to make food that he wants to eat.
Ask any vegetarian, let alone any vegan, it can be hard to find food that is satisfying. Morels food always satisfied.
Stan helped usher in the current Louisville food truck renaissance and won a lot of fans, but the food truck business can be uneven. (Editor’s note: Morels was also one of Louisville’s first big Kickstarter wins.)
Stanley got set up with the owners of prosperous local coffee chain, Heine Brothers, through friends who barrista there. He pitched them a line of vegan wraps.
At the time there were no vegan food options at Heine Brothers. There were occasionally cheese paninis for vegetarians, but Stan thought there was a hole that needed to be filled. Heine Brothers agreed.
It was an experiment. The wraps started out in a few stores, but quickly expanded. They are now available in all fifteen Heine Brother’s.
The regularity of the wrap sales helped the business, but as the demand for the wraps grew quickly, it placed Stan at a crossroads.
It was becoming clear the wraps, originally a side business, were a thriving business of their own.
Stan sold the truck and started renting kitchen space at the Clifton Center. Morels the food truck became Morels: the Vegan Butcher. They hand make and sell approximately twelve hundred wraps a month.
But that’s about to change, due once again, to a little experiment
“At first I wasn’t sure I was even going to make the jerky.” Stan says, discussing the origin of his popular chewy treat. He kept experimenting with flavors and looking for different textures. He had fond memories of eating jerky before he gave up meat, and he wanted to recreate that experience.
Stan thought vegan jerky seemed like a dicey business proposition, but decided to give it a shot. In 2012 Morel’s introduced their jerky in two flavors, original and spicy chipotle. The jerky was available in the stores that sold the wraps.
Sales were good, but uneven. Sometimes the jerky would sell out immediately, sometimes it would linger on the shelves. But that was okay, ’cause it’s jerky. It stays good for months.
This brings us to the crucial difference between Morels success with their wraps and the blossoming nationwide success they are having with their jerky.
You can put jerky in the mail.
Shortly after Stan started marketing his vegan jerky online, demand ballooned. Now you can buy it in 13 states, at more than thirty stores. You can get it shipped all over the country from online stores like fakemeats.com, and veganessentials.com, a site that “blows through product like nobody else.”
This success places Stan at another crossroads. The vegan wraps are expensive to make, with a low profit margin. They have lots of ingredients. They need to be refrigerated.
The smart business move is to quit messing around with those wraps and go all jerky all the time.
But that’s a move that Stan isn’t quite comfortable with.
He’s phasing the wraps out slowly, but in the meantime wants “to find somebody to take them over, so they don’t go away.”
Stan sounds like he doesn’t want to abandon the loyal vegans and vegetarians who helped get him where his is, saying that the wraps “need to be there for the community.” Stan mentioned some locals he’s considering handing the wraps business to, but asked that we keep specifics off the record.
In the meantime, Morels has already started their transition with a name change: say hello to The Louisville Vegan Jerky Company.
The transition comes with snazzy new bags, and a few new flavors.
The bags feature images by local artist Dick Starr and are attractive but understated. The old bags looked like something you would see somebody munching on at Forecastle. The new bags would be equally comfortable in a boardroom or at a protest rally.
The new flavors are Bourbon Smoked Spicy Chipotle, Bourbon Smoked Black Pepper, and Sriracha Maple. The Black Pepper is smokey and hot, while the Chipotle keeps the heat and adds a touch of sweetness. The Sriracha Maple is the sweetest and maybe the hottest. If I were forced to pick a favorite, it would be the Sriracha Maple, but it should be noted that I ate three whole bags of this stuff trying to decide, and I’m not a vegetarian.
Stan recently invited me to the Morels kitchen in the basement of the Clifton Center. The aging community center seems like a strange choice for a full-scale production facility, and the Louisville Vegan Jerky Company will surely have to move at some point if their success continues.
The packaging of the jerky already spills out of the kitchen and into the spacious reception hall. Of course, when Stan first started renting this space, it was to prepare vegan wraps for a couple of local coffee shops, not to produce jerky for a nationwide business.
There are maybe a hundred full jerky bags on a sixty inch round table. One of Stan’s employees is busily heat sealing the packages and then tossing them into a large plastic bin. There’s another employee in back cooking jerky.
It’s a business bursting at the seams, ready to grow even more.
Stan is in talks with a distributor who wants to put vegan jerky in gas station all over the country. Stan’s also in the process of hiring more people. There’s a Whole Foods application sitting on his desk.
Stan’s stated goals for the future are simple; he wants to “keep growing,” and “keep it Louisville.”