Tofurky. For vegans and vegetarians, it's a household name and Thanksgiving dinner staple. For diehard carnivores, it's a punch line. The media? It's an evergreen, fun holiday story. But for Seth Tibbott, it's the idea that thrust his business into the limelight--and profitability.
"I started Turtle Island in 1980 on $2,500 of naturalist wampum," says Tibbott, 56, referring to his company that makes Tofurky and other meat substitutes. He'd been working as an outdoor education teacher in Portland, Oregon, but said that the naturalist programs that employed him began drying up in the nascent Reagan years.
A vegetarian since college, Tibbott learned the basics of making tempeh--a fermented soybean meat substitute popular in Southern Asia--on a visit to The Farm, a Tennessee commune founded in 1971 that's still going today.
"I remembered in college [in the early '70s], the things that were esoteric back then were foods like granola and yogurt. Fast forward 10 years and there were aisles full of both products in supermarkets. I thought maybe tempeh would be the same kind of thing one day," recalls Tibbott.
Turtle Island Foods made tempeh products for the next 15 years, but everything changed in 1995. Tibbott had just moved his operation from an old schoolhouse in Washington to an 8,000-square-foot facility in Mt. Hood, Oregon. "We needed to fill up the plant with something," says Tibbott. "After losing our shirt for 15 years, we started making Tofurky."
Thanksgiving can be a stressful time for herbivores. Even if you skip the turkey, giblet gravy and stuffing cooked inside the bird aren't friendly options. If you're vegan, meaning you eschew all dairy products, traditional mashed potatoes and candied yams are also nixed from your plate.
"There was this niche, this underserved market of vegetarians who had no clue what to do for Thanksgiving," says Tibbot, who now calls himself a "flexi-vegan," meaning no self-flagellation if he eats dairy products once in a while. "Our purpose was to create a bomb-proof, convenient recipe that they could serve right alongside turkey. That's what catapulted us."
Stores clamored to stock the new Thanksgiving item, and Tofurky became a perennial media favorite. Tibbott says the company received $1.2 million in free TV advertising last year with both local and national news shows covering the faux meat; even ER mentioned Tofurky in an episode. "It's amazing to me because Tofurky is 12 years old this year and you would think that it would be harder to get media attention. But if anything, we seem to get more." Accordingly, Tibbott only advertises in a few niche publications like Vegetarian Times and relies on free media publicity to get the word out on TV.
A few years after the introduction of Tofurky, Tibbott noticed how typical turkey product purveyors extend their sales all year long. So he developed Tofurky lunch meats and sausages. Tempeh still seems to be Tibbott's first culinary love, but Tofurky will make up more than 90 percent of Turtle Island's estimated $10 million-plus sales in 2007.
Keeping It Earth-Friendly
Tibbott runs his company in the manner that you'd expect: He includes no genetically modified ingredients in the products. Turtle Island uses recycled packaging and wind credits and, despite those cloudy Oregon skies, Tibbott's looking into solar power. Raw ingredients are purchased from U.S. and Canadian companies whenever possible.
Tibbott says one of his bigger challenges is to keep these ideals while staying competitive, especially as food giants step into the expanding vegetarian market, which research group Mintel forecasts to grow 3.6 percent annually through 2010. "The biggest nut for us to crack, as a small, family-held business, is being profitable, yet trying to do business in an environmentally sustainable [and] fair practice [way]."
Tibbott, whose company has 55 employees, says this David-vs.-Goliath-type challenge is one of the things that get him out of bed in the morning. "You imagine the resources that these guys have for new product development. They have big staffs and all the latest shiny equipment and big budgets," he says. "Yet, our success rate on new product launches is the same or better, which is always amazing because we just have basically one person [in charge of new product development], who lives out off the grid in the hills of Southern Washington."
Tibbott himself lived in a treehouse he built for seven years during the lean years of Turtle Island, so having an employee who lives off the grid makes perfect sense. Tofurky may be on supermarket shelves across the country, but the sensibility of this company founded by a hippie schoolteacher who turned a refrigerator and holiday lights into a tempeh incubator hasn't changed one bit.