“Everybody knows tofu, but not many people know tempeh” even though the two soy-based foods sit side-by-side on the shelf in stores that carry the products, said Brad Lahrman, director of marketing for Lightlife, which sells tempeh.
“Even some of the foodies don’t know what tempeh is,” he added, underscoring the challenge faced by manufacturers who want to see the category grow.
Indeed, less than 1% of households currently buy the soy product, and they are highly concentrated on the East Coast and the Pacific Northwest, which is where most of the product distribution occurs currently, he noted.
“But once people buy it, they get hooked” and keep buying it, he said, which is why he is hopeful that 2015 will be “the year of tempeh” as espoused by a food editor for The Washington Post in January.
Lahrman explained that tempeh has a lot of features that currently are on trend that could help the food gain traction if more consumers are exposed to it.
For example, tempeh is one of the highest protein-packed meat alternatives available with 16 grams of protein per each 3-ounce serving of Lightlife’s original organic tempeh – making it an ideal pick for American’s ostensibly insatiable desire for protein.
It also meets consumer demand for convenience in that it can be sliced and eaten straight from the package or quickly fried, baked or grilled. Plus it is highly absorbent so it can be marinated in bold flavors for a wide variety of different dishes, he said.
Tempeh also is “pure and natural” with a clean ingredient list that its most basic includes only fermented soy beans and water, said Erin Ransom, marketing director for Tofurky, a Turtle Island Foods’ brand.
She noted that tempeh also is spot on with fermenting, which “is really hot now,” and a lot of people hope that “soy gets swept up in that and we will see a resurgence” in tempeh sales.
Because tempeh is fermented, it also can provide the health benefits of probiotics, which also are in demand, Lahrman added.
Broader awareness is necessary
Even with everything tempeh has going for it, it has an uphill climb to popularity, and likely will not achieve the same status as tofu and mock meat, which also had to fight tooth and nail for years to gain acceptance.
But to give tempeh a fighting chance, Lightlife will invest more heavily in marketing and sampling tempeh in 2015, Lahrman said.
He hopes that the category can double by targeting the people who drink almond and soy milk, who eat yogurt for health benefits and who seek healthier and more sustainable protein choices.
Once these groups try tempeh, Lahrman believes uptake will “snowball.”
He explained: “Your best advocates are your current consumers. If you make them happy and give them things they enjoy eating, they will tell their friends and they will tell their friends and pretty soon there is no reason tempeh can’t be like the veggie burger where 30% of people eat veggie burgers.”
Innovation & packaging updates to grab attention
Tofurky also is investing in tempeh, hoping to drive interest through innovation, Ransom said.
“We are back in R&D with our tempeh because it is where our roots are from and we are trying to introduce different types of grains and seeds in the soy so we can appeal to people who are looking for tempeh with a little spin,” she said. For example, it is exploring adding chia seeds, garbanzo beans and black beans.
Tofurky also is modernizing how it packages tempeh, currently in a box with a window, and pushing to remerchandise tempeh so it sits closer to tofu and other mock-meats on store shelves to catch consumers’ attention, Ransom said.