From rock bands to eggplants: the path of Paul Sprangers
Editor's note: This story is part of Faces A to Z, a series highlighting familiar — and not so familiar — faces around Goodhue County. Learn more about the series and how to get involed here, and check back to the A to Z page for stories, history lessons and Q&As.
When Red Wing locals hear the name Paul Sprangers, many first thoughts jump to the 1998 Red Wing High School graduate's band Free Energy. After two albums and world tours with the rock band, alongside fellow Winger alums and brothers, Scott and Evan Wells, Sprangers was in need of change.
"Touring can be really brutal," Sprangers said. "I found myself increasingly trying to find ways to stay healthy on the road."
Trips to Whole Foods grocery stores, specifically the salad bar, grew to be a revered part of Sprangers' touring routine. In recent years, living between Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Boulder, Colo., while a third album, in Sprangers' words, was "slowly" in the works, an unexpected source of inspiration came to him.
"In Los Angeles, I went to a vegan potluck and tried some eggplant bacon a friend had brought," Sprangers said. "It blew my mind."
A practicing vegetarian and in recent years vegan, Sprangers said the eggplant bacon opened his eyes to how food can taste.
"It is hard to switch over (to vegan)," Sprangers said. "I was afraid I wouldn't be able to find foods that I like and I would be stuck eating carrots my whole life."
Back in Pennsylvania for more music work, the versatile eggplant remained in the back of his mind, Sprangers said.
"I was volunteering at a farm when a large eggplant harvest happened," he said. "I remembered the taste of that eggplant bacon and began working on it myself."
Sprangers made test batch after test batch, experimenting with recipes to transform the hearty vegetable into a beef jerky taste and texture.
"I was eating a lot of eggplant," Sprangers said.
As he developed recipes, Sprangers would bag up his eggplant jerky with surveys, distributing them for feedback, with some even finding their way to Minnesota for friends and family to taste.
The booming natural food market in Boulder caught Sprangers' attention as his passion for a perfect eggplant recipe grew.
"Boulder is the Silicon Valley of natural foods," Sprangers said of his relocation to the city. "I rented a community kitchen space was totally engrossed in this project."
Following a year of non-stop trial and error, Sprangers developed his eggplant jerky flavors, stamping his own bags, and showing his product to the health food community.
"I knew I needed to find a facility to manufacture for me, the process needed a lot of space," Sprangers said.
Moving back to southern California, Sprangers found a co-packer in Los Angeles. A co-packer, Sprangers explained, is a facility that will make your product for you with your ingredients and recipe.
"Things began falling into place," Sprangers said, as he founded Power Plant, a producer of organic eggplant jerky.
The savory plant-based snack, he said, is made with organic eggplant and organic barbeque sauce.
"The jerky is 100 percent vegan, gluten-free and soy-free," Sprangers said. "People are really looking into how their food is made. There is a non-dairy, non-meat version of pretty much everything. This industry is exploding right now."
Sprangers said he knew his unique product would need face-to-face taste testing with potential customers.
After many samplings in Los Angeles-area markets, Power Plant products are now in stores and available online.
"The eggplant jerky has a taste and texture very close to beef jerky," he said. "You have that chew and pull, and same savory and smoky taste of beef jerky."
In early March, Sprangers launched a $15,000 Kickstarter campaign to help boost Power Plant's production. Thanks to the Showtime network's televisions series "Billions," Sprangers' goal was met within one week.
"We are one of 20 companies that will get funded by the show," Sprangers said. "It feels like a miracle."
From his time on stage with Free Energy, to now, being fully immersed with the deep purple vegetable full of phytonutrients and antioxidants, Sprangers said his Minnesotan roots are never far from his mind.
"The main goal is to get back to Minnesota because that is where I first learned about being a vegetarian and discovered a whole new side of food."
Sprangers said the Twin Cities area has the greatest number of a natural food co-operatives in the country.
"My hope is that Power Plant is a product that tastes good enough for everyone to enjoy, not just vegans," he said.
Visit www.powerplantfoods.com to learn more about Sprangers and his eggplant jerky.