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Talking Turkey With Mr. Tofurky

'I always wanted to do something for Thanksgiving. That's what turned us around.'



Seth Tibbott, 61, really hadn't spent any time around turkeys until just before Thanksgiving 2011.

"I visited a place called The Farm Sanctuary in Watkins Glen, N.Y.," Tibbott remembered. "And they set up all these tables full of cranberries and squash and rice, and then they have this fabulous feast where the turkeys are the honored guests. Going eyeball to eyeball to turkeys was a unique experience."

Tibbott is a turkey's best friend. As the founder of owner of Turtle Island Foods, makers of Tofurky products, Tibbott probably saves the necks of thousands of birds each holiday season while selling his vegan alternatives to customers across North America.

Did you grow up with a traditional American diet?

For the most part. I wasn't a big turkey eater when I was a young boy. When we went to celebrate Thanksgiving at my aunt's house, my mom would make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for me to eat. My aunt thought it was rude and awkward. I never really liked going there. But by the time I was in high school, I was eating hamburgers every day.

Do you remember when you stopped eating meat?

I do. It was 1974, and I read the great book by Frances Moore Lappe: Diet for a Small Planet. It pointed out that we treated our animals like protein machines in reverse. We pour 16 pounds of grain into an animal for one pound of meat and that didn't make sense to me. It was the main reason I became a vegetarian. I started looking into diet and other issues and knew that I had made a good decision.

Pardon my pun, but did you go cold turkey and stop eating meat on that day?

I wasn't too strict about it. I still ate cheese and eggs for several years. But in 1978, I spent time on a Tennessee farm that was doing cutting-edge work on tempeh and tofu.

When did you want to turn that lifestyle into an economic model?

I was looking to sink my teeth into something. We were living near Portland and we were dirt poor. Turtle Island Foods was founded in 1980 with tempeh products, but we were only selling regionally. For years I was earning about $300 a month, but I always wanted to do something for Thanksgiving. That's what turned us around: Tofurky. We got a lot of press and became a national company.

Give me a sense of your sales figures.

We usually ship 300,000-400,000 units a year. We recently hit the 3 million mark.

Did you celebrate?

Not anything big. It was a cool moment, but when you're in business like this, stuff keeps coming at you.

How many products do you currently market?

Thirty. Eight tempeh and 22 Tofurky products.

Where do you ship your products?

Ten percent goes to Canada. The bulk of the rest goes to the United States. We're getting more export savvy. We have a small presence in the United Kingdom and we just shipped our first load to Australia last week.

How did you find the right recipe for taste and texture?

The texture is always harder than flavor. Some flavors are easy. Bologna and bacon were easy, but ham is like the holy grail. People always ask me, "Why don't you have an Easter ham?" We're trying, but no luck so far. But the texture involves a special process that has evolved over time. We really want the Tofurky to pull apart in your hands similar to a pulled piece of poultry. Nobody does that like we do.

How many competitors does Tofurky have?

There are six or eight meat-alternative companies and most are owned by big multinational companies. We're the largest family owned independent. The last of the Mohicans.

Do consumers sometimes confuse other products with the Tofurky brand?

They do. The trademark lawyers are always cautioning that you don't want to be like Kleenex. You lose your mark if you don't fight for it.

I love real turkey. Why would I eat Tofurky?

The health and nutrition aspect. Tofurky has the same protein as turkey but no cholesterol. Do you like white meat?

Love it.

You're going to know the difference, but it's close enough that it's not so bad. We get calls all the time from people who say their doctor told them their cholesterol is going through the roof.

Has Tofurky become a gateway toward other tofu products for a lot of your customers?

No doubt. Five percent of America is vegan or vegetarian. But 17 percent of Americans eat 50 percent of their meals meatless each week. That's a major force driving our numbers. Meat sales are down; the USDA says meat is down 12.2 percent since 2008. Pork, beef, chicken, turkey--all down.

How big is your company?

There's my family, plus 100 employees. We've hired about 1.5 people a month for the last 16 months. I think President Obama can thank us for some of those improving employment numbers.

What's on your Thanksgiving table?

Tofurky. I used to smoke them but lately, I've been putting a roast in a crockpot with some mushroom soup.

How many will a roast feed?

We have two sizes, but our most popular one--26 ounces--easily feeds five people. The roast may seem small but there are no bones. Plus, there's usually plenty of leftovers for sandwiches and casseroles.

And I see that you package an entire meal.

A Tofurky feast includes a two-pound roast, 14 ounces of gravy, an 11-ounce vegan chocolate cake and two Tofurky wish sticks to make a wish. That goes for 19 bucks and feeds six people.

And how significant is your presence in the Treasure Valley?

Our products are at Fred Meyer, the Boise Co-Op and Whole Foods.

So I guess I should say Happy Tofurky Day.

Do you know why the Tofurky crossed the road?

OK, I'll bite. Why?

To prove that he wasn't chicken.


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