And back in those days, Tofurky brand owner Turtle Island Foods wasn’t bringing in the big bucks either, admits its founder and president. “I think I made $27 in 1981. We had three tempeh products: Five grain, Spicy and Soy, and we were doing OK, but we were mostly regional. It was a cottage industry."
We wanted to avoid soy protein isolates and concentrates extracted with hexane
15 years later, however, Tibbott developed Tofurky and sales started to explode.
“In the mid-1990s there were a lot of veggie burgers on the market, but we were looking for something for vegetarians to eat at Thanksgiving, and there weren’t any frozen meatless poultry type products available”, he recalls.
“However, we wanted to avoid the soy protein isolates and concentrates that other companies were using, which are extracted with hexane.
“To make Tofurky, we take organic tofu and combine it with vital wheat gluten and expeller pressed non-GMO canola oil and then texture it using a proprietary process where we also add flavors and spices.
“You need the wheat gluten because if you freeze tofu you get a spongy texture with holes and we needed to have a product that could be frozen and shipped.”
It’s like pulling a piece of chicken apart
If you tear a piece of Tofurky it shears at a 45° angle, like meat, not at a 90° angle like other meat alternatives, he adds.
“It’s like pulling chicken apart. Other people have tried to copy our process - it’s not rocket science after all - but their products don’t look the same.”
Tofurky was an overnight sensation, and Tibbott found himself fielding calls from the national media and basking in a haze of free publicity.
We became the number two brand in natural pizza within six months
Today, Tofurky represents 85% of the company’s sales and can be found in everything from deli slices to hot dogs, sausages and pizza. Around 60% of sales are from mass grocery stores, 35% from the natural channel and around 5% from foodservice sales, he says.
“We’ve been very lucky with new products. When we first started talking about pizza, people were saying ‘it’s a dogfight in there, you won’t get any [shelf] space’. But we went in anyway and became the number two brand in natural pizza within six months.
“This made us think maybe we can compete in more categories than we thought.”
Mainstream grocers now recognize that shoppers seeking out brands such as Tofurky and Quorn will also do the rest of their shop in stores that stock these must-have brands, he says.
“However, there is still a lot of debate about where to stock meat alternatives in the store. Should you put them in a store within a store, by the vegetables, or put them by the meat?”
The latter might make sense for meat reducers, he observes, but not for vegetarians: “Guess what, vegetarians don’t shop the meat aisles.”
For 17% of Americans half or more meals a week are now meatless
Along with most players in the category, Turtle Island is targeting meat-reducers/flexitarians as well as vegetarians, says Tibbott, who is developing a new factory in Hood River, Oregon, due to open next year, to meet growing demand.
“This is a big up and coming market. For 17% of Americans half or more meals a week are now meatless and that’s a big market, whereas only 5% of Americans are vegetarian and 2% are vegan.”
And meat reducers are not “grossed out” by products attempting to replicate the texture of meat, he points out.
Quite the opposite: “They want to reduce meat for health reasons but they like the texture and taste of it.”
While much has been made of the environmental impact of meat production (4.87lbs of grain are needed to make 1lb of turkey meat vs .47lbs for a 1lb of Tofurky Roast according to Turtle Island Foods), the desire to save the planet is not (at least not yet) a primary driver of meat-free sales, he says.
Is Quorn a threat?
While he first saw mycoprotein-maker Quorn - which specializes in poultry analogs - as a potential threat, he has since concluded that the more investment new players can bring to the market, the better.
“If Quorn brings new consumers to the category, they will look at what else is in there and say maybe I’ll try some other products as well? People want variety and they want to experiment.”
So how much has the market changed since the mid-1990s?
A lot, says Tibbott, who observes that the major brands in meat and dairy alternatives are now owned by multinationals (MorningStar Farms and GardenBurger are owned by Kellogg; Boca is owned by Kraft; Alpro and White Wave (Silk) are owned by Dean Foods).
“When a lot of these companies started they were led by passionate entrepreneurs, but one by one, they sold out to these big corporations leaving brand managers in charge.”
Tibbott, who predicts his family-owned business will “do just north of $25m in sales this year”, has no plans to sell up, however.
“A lot of people want to buy us”, he says. “But I’m not selling.”