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November 24th, 2004 Taylor Clark | News Stories
 

Talking Tofurky

Seth Tibbott: the man who made Thanksgiving safe for vegans.

     
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Tofurky
IMAGE: MATT WONG
Let's clear things up right away: Tofurky actually exists. No, it's not just a punch line. People really eat it. And though it might horrify carnivorous Portlanders, the vegan turkey substitute was born in 1995 mere miles away, in the Forest Grove kitchen of Seth Tibbott.

Today, Tibbott's Turtle Island Foods cranks hundreds of thousands of the pretend poultry products out of its Hood River plant each holiday season--generating $5 million a year in revenue. Filled with festive holiday cheer, WW's meat-averse reporter Taylor Clark talked Tofurky with the man who saved Thanksgiving for vegetarians.

Oh, and it really does taste like turkey. Mostly.

WW: What jumpstarted the Tofurky renaissance?

Seth Tibbott: When we were able to sell several hundred of these Tofurkys the first year, we got the feeling that there was this market that wasn't being addressed: What do you do as a vegetarian on Thanksgiving?

It's a problem.

We'd made Thanksgiving dinner with the same people for years, and it was just one disaster after another. We had the stuffed pumpkin, which was pretty good, but as a side dish. Then there was this gluten roast that you couldn't cut with a chainsaw. There seemed to be a need for something fun and delicious and pretty easy to prepare.

How is Tofurky made?

Tofurky is made by blending organic tofu and vital wheat gluten. You combine these, along with the secret Colonel's herbs and spices and natural flavorings. And this texture process makes this matrix that really has sort of meatlike characteristics to it.

How tough is it to give a meatlike texture?

It's very difficult to really nail it. The first Tofurkys were good, but really kind of spongy. They were great fresh, but when you froze them--which we needed to do to hit more than just Portland--this didn't cut it. We went through a long R&D before we settled on this recipe.

How much Tofurky do you sell?

We sold about 150,000 of these Tofurky roasts last year. We don't know what we'll end up with this year, but we're slightly ahead so far.

How many turkeys do you think you've saved over the holidays?

That's a good question. You'd have to see whether those people who were eating Tofurky would have been eating a turkey instead.

Does that thought ever cross your mind, though? Like, "Wow, I've helped save half a million turkeys?"

Uhhhh...yeah, it does. I think that's a good thing. There is a crossover market now of people who, you know, just found out that they have high cholesterol and have to change their diet. They've been eating meat all their lives, and they go, "Well what do I eat now?" There's tofu, which is this squiggly little cake that I happen to love, but to these guys going from meat to that is a real struggle. So to texture it like meat, it can help.

Do you get many people who say they can't tell the difference?

You do on some products. There have been vegetarians that we've heard from who say, "Hey, the first time I had this in a restaurant, I sent it back because I thought it was meat." But it's easier to fool these vegetarians who haven't eaten meat in a while.

Where are the big national Tofurky markets?

It's all over, but the No. 1 store that sells the most Tofurkys in the country, where would you think that would be?

Uhhhh...California.

It's actually Georgia.

No.

Yes. This store called Return to Eden, down in the Atlanta area, last year sold, like, 500 or something. Also Minneapolis--that's a real good Tofurky town. Boston, certainly, is killer. Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Portland....

How many did you sell in Portland last year?

Well, last year in the Northwest, about 17,000.

Wow. So where are you just not selling Tofurkys at all? Mississippi?

Yeah, that would be one. You can roughly say you sell more in blue states than red states.

Was there thought of adding tryptophan or another sleep aid for a more realistic Thanksgiving experience?

[Laughs] That's been discussed, more in jest. But hey, with a product with a funny name like Tofurky, there's nothing off the topic of conversation. You wonder where to go with it: duck or chicken or ham. Tofuna would be a natural.

Is there a risk of becoming a seasonal food?

Yeah. After the first Tofurky season or two, we said, "Wow, this is great," but after Christmas, how many Tofurkys with drumsticks and everything do you eat? So this year, we started making deli slices, sausages and jerky. For the last few years, we averaged a 15 percent growth curve, but this past year it went up to 47 percent or something ungodly like that.

Does anyone there have to eat meat to approximate the texture?

Actually, I do that when I'm on the trail of a new product. I'm not a poster-child vegan anyway, so it's not like I have to force myself. To me, it's just interesting to see what meat--or fake Tofurky, as we call it--tastes like.

Does it bother you that Tofurky is the butt of so many jokes?

Oh, not at all. That's really the key to our success. Because it's funny, it's memorable.


Vegans, vegetarians and daring meat-eaters can hunt for a Tofurky Roast (about $9) at many area groceries--including Fred Meyer, Wild Oats and Whole Foods.
 
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