In Louisville, Kentucky, ten miles from Churchill Downs, Stanley Chase III is doing something different with vegan food.
It started five years ago when Chase, now 32, was running the first vegan food truck in a city known more for its juleps and hot browns than chef-inspired vegan cuisine. When a kitchen mishap left many of his soy products burned to a crisp, Chase was surprised to find a flavor in those charred remains similar to one he had been craving since abandoning a meat-centric diet. It was the unmistakable chew and smoke of jerky—this time, cruelty-free.
Through the embers of that mistake, Chase perfected his recipe and forged ahead to create Louisville Vegan Jerky Company, the first of its kind to offer hand-crafted vegan jerky in the United States. With a product line that includes flavors such as Bourbon Smoked Black Pepper, Sesame Teriyaki, and Maple Bacon, Chase and his team have cornered the market on small-batch vegan jerky. Last month alone, Chase sold 22,000 bags to quirky cafes and health food stores across the country. When Arcade Fire played to a sold-out crowd in Louisville, Chase's Bourbon Smoked Chipotle was on the rider.
And yet Chase has always been uncomfortable with doing things by the book. Even the prospect of an interview comes with a caveat. "I don't want this to be about selling something," he says, discussing articles written about him in the past. "I'm trying to take that energy out of our company."
Indeed, most of Chase's enthusiasm comes less from the number of bags he's able to sell and more about the culture he's able to create for his employees and community. They only work with local, American-made products. They sponsor the oldest dog at a local adoption agency every month. They also continually donate to animal sanctuaries across the state. For Chase, running a business is like having a personal sandbox to play in. He gets to do things his way, on his time, creating an atmosphere that isn't about chasing the dollar, but about fostering real relationships with the people around him.
"I've been told by old-school business guys that the things I want to do aren't possible," Chase says, speaking particularly about his Jerky of the Month Club (think Loot Crate for vegan jerky) and using only American-made products. "But I had my entire business funded in seven hours by three people. That's our generation. That's what we do. The ability to get important things done fast in new and exciting ways is a powerful thing."
Chase describes his company as a place of ideas and creativity. Now employing eight people, including two brothers, Chase says anyone can come in with an idea for a new flavor and see it come to life. "The morale and energy here is so high," he says, walking me through his 1,200-square-foot warehouse, boxes of jerky stacked to the ceilings. Punk rock blasts through the speakers. "I plan on getting all employees at least $15 an hour and an end of the year bonus based on profits. We already do monthly massages and everyone loves it." Chase relishes the fact that everyone seems to want to work here, something he says is a "key thing in business."
Louisville Vegan Jerky Company now has five different flavors, each of them with their own unique label featuring a prominent figure in Louisville history. There's Pete Browning, an 1880s-era baseball player for the now defunct Louisville Colonels, someone Chase describes as "lost to history" despite having one of the highest batting averages in MLB history. Enid Yandell, a Louisville sculptor in the 1800s who Chase calls an "unstoppable activist and feminist," adorns the sriracha maple—a flavor that, like Yandell, Chase says is "ahead of its time." Bourbon Smoked Chipotle features Louisville-born director Tod Browning, who, in the 1930s, brought Dracula and Freaks to the big screen. Even his own mother, Paulette, has her face on a bag—a move that keeps Chase honest.
"An agency didn't create my brand," Chase says. He shows me Facebook comments from people raving about the jerky. He talks about how long they've talked back and forth online, and how he feels like he knows each one of them. One posts describes how a woman "drove four hours for sriracha maple." Another discusses how her meat-eating husband has made the switch. "I don't need anyone to tell me who I am," Chase says. "And neither do any of the businesses that I admire right now. Think about how many people are suffering because of that mentality. It's not about just seeming to be an intimate company, but truly fostering real relationships with the people that buy our product."
Spoken like a true non-jerky.