Before there were Impossible Whoppers and veggie burgers engineered to “bleed,” there was Tofurky. The tofu-based holiday roast debuted in 1995 from a small Oregon-based company called Turtle Island Foods that had been limping along for years selling tempeh. “I made $300 a month the first nine years on average,” remembers Turtle Foods founder Seth Tibbott. “I was living the dream but losing my shirt.”
Then came Tofurky, a more or less instant hit. Its fame (and sales) grew with each passing holiday. It was featured on local NPR in the first year and graduated to the morning shows by the second. Eventually, Tibbott said, “I had to put the New York Times on hold to talk to the Washington Post. It was just crazy.”
In the decades since its debut, Tofurky has stayed a leader in the plant-based protein market, valued at more than $10 billion in 2020.
Tibbott comes to Philadelphia this week to celebrate the 205th birthday of American vegetarianism. He’ll join a special historical walking tour guided by former Daily News columnist and American Vegan Center director Vance Lehmkuhl, who will unpack Philly’s vegetarian roots, including the Bible Christians, a Swedenborgian sect that preached abstention from alcohol and animal flesh starting in the early 1800s. Later in the day, Tibbott and Lehmkuhl will give a joint presentation on vegetarian history, complete with samples of a new Tofurky product.
The Inquirer talked Tofurky and other subjects with Tibbott ahead of his first visit to Philly.
On June 15, Seth Tibbott will attend a walking tour starting at 1 p.m. at the American Vegan Center, 17 N. Second St. He and Vance Lehmkuhl will co-present a talk at 7 p.m. the same day. For more info, go to americanvegan.org/veg-history-walking-tours.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
When did you start Turtle Island Foods?
I was vegetarian in 1972; I started being one in college after reading Diet for a Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappe, which pointed out that it was a pretty inefficient system of producing protein — running these grains through animals and not getting much back in return. She also was combatting the myth that you really couldn’t get protein any other way than through eating animal protein. It really made sense to me, and I became vegetarian. But I was pretty crummy one at first, eating a lot of vanilla wafers and chips. But no meat!
I visited The Farm community in Tennessee run by this Haight-Ashbury guru Stephen Gaskin, and they had bought 1,600 acres of land and they were growing soybeans. So I started experimenting with that after being at The Farm and I also found tempeh at The Farm. I brought home some of the spores and I brewed a batch of tempeh. And I was like, “Oh wow, this is so tasty.” I had been living off these soy burgers; they didn’t taste great, but they digested worse. This was like, “Oh, I can eat this.”
I could remember when granola was only sold in the little psychedelic head shops in my college town in 1972, and when I went back five years later, there were whole granola sections in the supermarket. I thought, tempeh’s gonna be the same thing. So I started making it in the local co-op in Forest Grove, Oregon, on $2,500 I had earned being a naturalist up in Alaska. They rented the kitchen out to me at night. I came in at four o’clock and would make 100 pounds of tempeh in eight hours, come back the next day, harvest it, and then drive it around in my little beat-up station wagon all over Portland. You know what tempeh is?
I’ve had it, but I don’t know how it’s made. Is it compressed tofu?
Tempeh is a fermented soy food from Indonesia. You split the beans, boil them, and then inoculate them with a culture — it’s a mold actually, but it’s one of the good-guy molds, like a probiotic situation. So you incubate it overnight and, voila, the fermentation binds the beans into this cake. Tofu I think of as more like cheese. In fact, Ben Franklin in Philadelphia, he was the first American to find tofu, I think it was in France or somewhere in Europe. And he wrote a letter to somebody about this Chinese cheese he had found made out of soybeans. Ben Franklin was a vegetarian. He became one when he was 16 years old. He said, “I couldn’t go out to eat with my friends because they would go and eat meat and drink beer. And I would just stay home, it’d make more time for my experiments.” He later backed off and started eating fish on one of his voyages to Europe, so he was more of a pescatarian, I guess.
So you started making tempeh. When did Tofurky come about?
I made tempeh for 15 years. lt was really instructive because I didn’t know anything about business and it was good for me to learn how you market stuff. I was living my dream and it was growing slowly but it was never profitable. I was living in a tree house I had built because I didn’t have money for a nice rental. After 10 years, I kind of felt like a failure and I was trying to figure out something else to do but couldn’t.
I had seen that there wasn’t anything vegetarian to eat at the holidays, at Thanksgiving specifically. [Then] in 1995 I sold 800 Tofurky roasts in the Pacific Northwest and in California. Right from the beginning there was a lot of interest from consumers who were writing letters and driving hours to get their Tofurky. There was a lot of the media attention. Actresses were dragging Tofurkys onto The Tonight Show and different places. It was quite the ride.
For someone who’s never had Tofurky (like me), can you describe what it tastes like and how it’s made?
The first three years the recipe changed pretty drastically, because we were just experimenting. The first year it was just seasoned tofu with a little stuffing in the middle. The problem was, when we froze it, it changed the texture and it became a very different experience. The third year finally is when we ended up on this — a very savory, mellow, turkey-like substance. It really pulls apart like meat does. It has a nice bite.
At first we sold it for $30 because we were thinking “Oh, there’ll be eight people sitting around the table having this big Thanksgiving meal, this vegetarian meal.” We had a 10 tempeh drumsticks, we had 3 pounds of stuffed tofu roast, and we had 16 ounces of gravy; it was a complete kit. But after the first year we realized: it’s one or two people going to grandma’s house or your daughter coming back from college, and you’re already making turkey in your house and oh yeah, she’s a vegetarian now. We made a smaller, cheaper version that jumpstarted sales. People wanted a bomb-proof, easy thing that they could just stick in the oven, often right next to a turkey. It was one of these rare products that just takes off and finds a place on the table.
So it was an instant hit?
It was crazy because December was always the slow season for tempeh, because people were going home and got out of their normal eating habits. Then it became our fast season. The leaves would turn gold in the fall and the phone would start ringing off the hook. The second year we actually sold online — Tofurky was one of the earliest things sold online. We shipped all over the country. It just grew exponentially. Then in January, the phone would stop ringing.
What other products do you make?
We explored how the turkey producers do things, and they have deli slices and sausage. We came out with deli slices and they were a hit. We expanded the line from there — we now have about 80% market share. We also have a line of chicken now, which I wanted to call Tofurken Chicken, but that got cut — which killed me. We’ve also got a new line of cheeses, called Mucho Cheeses. And we actually have a new product that we’re going to be sampling on Wednesday at the celebration of the Bible Christians coming to Philadelphia.
I’ve been all over the world to all these vegan capitals: London; Portland, Oregon; Los Angeles; Sydney, Australia. I think Philadelphia is a world-class vegan city that is unknown and under-appreciated. It has the American Vegan Center, like a storefront. Vance is doing historical walking tours. It has 30 different vegan cheesesteaks on menus of not just vegan restaurants, but other restaurants, too.
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What do you think of the evolution of the plant-based meat market?
The texture and flavors have really improved. Somebody like Beyond [Meat] hit it out of the ballpark with their burger. That’s really what it’s all about: Taste is king, value’s queen, everything else is marketing. We want ‘em to succeed. When they succeed, we succeed. If the category is hot, there’s noise-making by somebody, buyers will go, “This product works. Let’s bring in more.”
» READ MORE: Where to get vegan wings in Philadelphia
When I first started making tempeh in December of 1980, I was so excited about my business and I came down to St. Paul for Christmas and I sat down with my Aunt Rosie and I told her about my moldy soybean plants. She stopped me and said, “Seth, this is a terrible idea. This is a meat-eating country and it’s always going to be a meat-eating country. Nobody wants to eat soybeans, especially not moldy ones!” I was like, “Well, thanks for the support, Aunt Rosie. I’m gonna do it anyways.” In 2002, I was sitting at my desk after this big Tofurky sales season and I’m just getting ready to go home and the phone rings. I pick it up and I hear, “Seth! Seth! You were [a clue] on Jeopardy!” I was like “What? Oh, Aunt Rosie, is that you?” She says, “Yeah! I always knew that was a good idea.”