Just In Case You're Curious, Here's a Little Background on the People Who Make Pleather Vegan Jerky
Matt and Melissa Trahan have been fixtures on the Northeast Ohio music scene since the 1990s, when they formed the long-running band KTH. A few years ago, they drew upon their experiences in the DIY punk community to start a new business: making and selling a meatless alternative to beef jerky. The couple began distributing their homemade treats locally, which led to the launch of their official brand, Pleather.
Pleather is a chewy, savory snack made from seitan - a wheat gluten-based protein. It comes in three different flavors (Red Pepper Bourbon BBQ, Black Pepper, and Ginger Sesame) that are now sold in local markets and online.
“It really started off as pejorative slang for fake leather,” explains Matt Trahan, discussing the origin of the name. “Pleather was kind of a diss term for if you wanted to pick on somebody for wearing a fake jacket. At the time, they would call it Naugahyde®, or Corinthian leather, or vinyl. I wanted (the name) to reflect the texture a little bit.”
His wife, bandmate, and business partner Melissa had been a vegetarian for many years. As Matt was weaning himself off red meat, he started looking for a vegetarian alternative to replace his favorite comfort food – beef jerky. After trying many of the brands available on the market, he began experimenting with his own recipes.
“Most other veggie jerkies are not very chewy. They’ve got some chew to them, but I wanted something that was like rawhide.”
Matt tried slicing and cooking up some marinated strips of homemade seitan. The results were promising enough that they shared their homemade brand of meatless jerky with friends and coworkers, who took to it instantly. Before long, they were bringing Ziploc bags full of the spicy treats to local punk shows. Soon it was time to go legit. The Trahans contacted the Ohio Department of Agriculture, who initially were unsure how to classify the food.
“They didn’t know at first what to make of it. ‘We don’t know whether we need you to go by the guidelines for making beef jerky, or if it’s a bakery product.’ I was like, ‘it’s kind of like making cookies.’” Eventually, the couple were advised to apply for a baker’s license. They formed their own business, Phoenician Micro Kitchen, and began operating out of a shared community space in Lakewood.
“Right now it’s just the two of us. We have it down to a divided labor, where I do certain things and Melissa does certain things at a certain time, and try to compliment what each other is doing. We do it all in a kitchen that’s about the size of a small storefront.”
The Trahans currently support themselves by working full-time jobs at a nonprofit corporation. This became a necessity when Melissa developed injuries during a Kill the Hippies tour in 2006. Matt received a job offer that included health benefits, something the couple – who had lived together for years – had no access to previously. They married soon after the tour ended.
“At that point, we were in our mid-thirties, so starting to get health benefits seemed like a good idea. It’s amazing to see what can be done for people with access to healthcare. Within about three months, she could start walking around again with physical therapy. I couldn’t imagine someone being denied that.”
Although Pleather is their primary entrepreneurial focus, Matt and Melissa remain active musically. KTH perform frequent local gigs as support for touring bands, and The Trahans record together as MeAnderthal. Matt is also a member of death-glam metal group Queen of Hell. This group formed as part of the Cleveland Lottery League, an event where local musicians who have never played together create new bands for a one-off show. Several of the Lotto League bands have chosen to continue as full or part-time projects – exemplifying the talent and camaraderie of the Cleveland music scene. Queen of Hell even spawned its own sister band, the bubblegum-psychedelic group Heavenly Queen.
Their experiences forging relationships and relying on their own resourcefulness on the road helped prepare the couple for launching the business. “In order to tour and gig as independent musicians, you have to learn to be as creative as you can be while working with very little,” Matt explains. “(With Pleather), there is still a sense of adventure in trying to build something new from the ground up. We need to be able to reach out and forge relationships with local vendors, as well as individual customers. The response and support from the music community in general has been overwhelming.”
Pleather may not remain a small operation for long. The Trahans have done the market research on expanding. “I have figured out that we could sustain ourselves going forward if we had the market to do so. We’re already doing research into different machinery, and talking to different food processing engineers.”
While they aren’t quitting their day jobs anytime soon, they are open to future possibilities. “I kind of miss working warehouse and production line jobs, but I always hated the aspect of not really gaining much from it,” Matt explains. “I’m hoping (with Pleather) to have both the headaches of management and the drudgery of production.”
Three zesty flavors of Pleather “super-tuff” vegan jerky are currently available online and in stores throughout Northeast Ohio – with more on the way.
Ryan Orvis is a freelance writer and survivor of the Kent, Ohio music scene.