Jaime Athos doesn't get angry easily.
The 45-year-old CEO's body language suggests he just emerged from a yoga class. That warmth is accentuated by a salt-and-pepper beard and smile lines around his eyes. He's so gentle, he gives interviews in the fetal position—pulling his right knee toward his chin as he snuggles deep in a chair.
He may not be a ruthless capitalist, but Athos is certainly a business owner, and a successful one. For the past five years, Athos has taken a Hood River company from an obscure health food business into one of America's five biggest purveyors of plant-based fake meat.
You might not know Athos, but you know his product. It's called Tofurky.
It's a meat substitute, made from tofu, that is one of the original vegan cold cuts.
Poultry farmers and cattle ranchers in Middle America have heard of it, too. In fact, they're so worried about the vegan competition that this year they took drastic steps to shut Athos down. Or—more precisely—shut him up.
These laws delighted Cody Burkham, executive vice president of the Arkansas Cattlemen's Association.
"If I know three things about the cattle and beef industry," he says, "they are this: We live and die by the markets, we always drink upstream from the herd, and you cannot have a rib-eye without a rib."
Ask Athos about it and he starts cussing.
"It's built on a foundation of bullshit," he says. "When you go to these egregious steps of limiting free speech, our First Amendment rights, you have to have a really good reason for that. And I don't recognize this effort as legitimate."
On July 22, the Oregon company sued Arkansas, charging that the meat labeling law state legislators passed in March infringes on its First Amendment rights.
Fake meat is now big business. Companies like Impossible Foods, Beyond Meat, and Tofurky are worth billions of dollars combined. Tofurky won't reveal its sales figures, but two business intelligence services estimate its annual revenues at more than $30 million.
It's a sign of the growing popularity of plant-based foods that the meat industry is fighting back.
And one of the only companies willing to battle lawmakers in court? A hippie-founded tofu maker on the shores of the Columbia River.
Tofurky's fight against Arkansas could decide whether nearly every vegan food company should be allowed to do business in rural states whose economies depend on ranching.
"The animal agriculture industries want to take a bite out of the competition," says Amanda Howell, an attorney with the Animal Legal Defense Fund, a law firm that enlisted Tofurky in the suit.
The key arguments in Tofurky's lawsuit? It says "there is no evidence that the current labels mislead consumers" and that the law's proponents "have admitted that the law's purpose is to protect the agricultural producers in the state."
Athos is defending the empire of soy he's built.
"We feel territorial about having helped set the stage for the success that we're seeing right now," Athos says. "These legislators come along and try to mess with that? We're happy to take up the fight."
You can smell the Tofurky long before you walk through the factory doors.
Massive vats of liquid tofu and herbs, which churn ceaselessly in cylindrical steel vats, push yeast-sweet and rosemary-sharp aromas to the far reaches of the company parking lot.
Inside, shapeless blobs of doughy tofu ooze onto conveyor belts, where they're formed into sausage links and large rounds the size of toddler legs—which get fed through a rapid slicer to become lunch meat.
Most of the process is automated. The factory's few workers—roughly 27 on any given day—wheel around barrows of ingredients. Steam billows from the whishing and whirring machines. Muffled music plays from one corner of the skylit factory, and employees exchange terse remarks as they monitor mixing, slicing and packaging.
It's reminiscent of a steampunk organic co-op.
And three decades ago, its founder was living in a treehouse and slinging free tofu samples to whomever he could persuade to try it.
Seth Tibbott started making tempeh, a fermented soy product, in 1980. He says there was no tofu on conventional grocery shelves at the time—"it was just Asians and hippies buying it"—so he lived in trees outside of Hood River to get by.
"I ended up renting four trees for $25 a month," says Tibbott, now 68. "And then I built a three-story treehouse. I lived there for seven years."
He rented kitchen space from an empty school.
His most vivid memory of that time? Demonstrating his product to skeptical Hood River shoppers.
"I would go in there with my little hot plate and cast-iron skillet and fry up tempeh for hours and give it to people," Tibbott says. "It was a niche within a niche of natural foods. We were just finding a foothold in America."
His soy sampling was limited to health food stores—grocers told Tibbott "come back when you grow up."
In 1995, Tibbott started selling his first tofu turkeys in Portland during Thanksgiving season. It was a breakthrough: one of the first tofu products in the U.S. designed to feel and taste like a specific meat.
Tibbott kept trying more. Slices. Sausages. Burgers.
"We came out with the deli slices in 1997," he says, "because we were like, 'Wow, this is great having a popular product during the holidays, but in January we shrink back down to being regional little tempeh producers.'"
Tibbott was an innovator. But by his own admission, he wasn't much of a salesman.
"I was just a tempeh maker that wanted to bring tempeh to the world," he says. "The business side of it was just like unknown to me."
Good thing he had a stepson.
Jaime Athos first met Seth Tibbott during a game of wolf tag.
"It's a game you play under the full moon where the person looking for everybody else howls and they have to howl back," Athos says. Tibbott organized the romp at his treehouse. Athos says he and his mom were part of a Hood River "hippie enclave" where Tibbott fit in seamlessly.
In 1992, Tibbott married Suzanne Spowart, Athos' mother.
Athos doesn't remember the first time he ate one of his stepdad's famous tofu turkeys, but he says the meal was ever-present.
"Our holiday traditions were a little bit different than the average family's," Athos says. "They tended to be potluck-style get-togethers with 60 to 80 friends. There'd be turkey and tofurky and lots of crazy hippie stews."
He admired his stepfather's zeal for tofu. But he never intended to take over the family business.
"When I was slinging tempeh back in my teenage years, I thought it would just be a summer job," Athos says.
But after attending business school at the University of Washington, Athos took over ownership of the company in 2014. He brought Tofurky into a new era by experimenting in territory previously untouched by Oregon hippies: Walmart.
Last year, he signed a deal with Walmart to sell the company's products in 4,200 stores. He also helped push Tofurky onto grocery shelves in Europe, Australia and New Zealand.
"I had personal hesitations with Walmart and their politics and their impact on small communities like the one I live in," Athos says. "But to turn up our nose at that relationship would be to turn up our nose at all of those curious potential customers."
So how big is Tofurky now?
Its products are sold in 40,000 stores worldwide. The company—which Athos boasts has "probably one of the world's only vegan bocce ball courts" on its rooftop garden—is expanding aggressively. In April, it announced $7 million in outside funding to scale its production.
Competitors like California-based companies Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods—which make patties that are meant to smell, taste and even bleed like real meat—have also helped push vegan food into upscale grocery stores and restaurants. Athos says he's grateful for those companies' successful, multimillion-dollar marketing campaigns.
"Now if you try to educate a retail buyer about the potential of plant-based foods, they just stop you," Athos says. "It's like, 'Yeah, we get it. It's in the headlines all the time. People are eating this way and this is may be the wave of the future.'"
Others distrust that future.
David Hillman got mad at a package of cauliflower rice.
Hillman is a Republican state representative from Arkansas. He's a former rice farmer. One day, while shopping at his local grocery store, he saw a label for a rice product he didn't recognize.
"When I got to reading, it wasn't rice at all," he says. "It was cauliflower. I thought, 'They have no right to call it rice if it's not rice.'"
Outraged, he drafted a bill that restricted rice substitute companies from using the word rice on product packaging. Soon, a fellow state senator heard about the legislation.
"So he said, 'Would you put meat in that also?'" Hillman says. "And I said, 'Well, I guess I can.'"
Hillman's bill aims to "require truth in labeling of agricultural products that are edible by humans" and imposes a $1,000 fine on plant- and cell-based meat products that use labels like "veggie burger" and "tofu dog." (The law also applies to rice, of course.) It passed the Arkansas Senate 32 votes to 3.
Hillman tells WW his bill is meant to protect consumers from deceit.
"If somebody can come up with a product that looks like rib-eye and tastes like rib-eye for half the price, I'll probably eat it," he says. "My problem is, don't call it turkey if it's not turkey."
However, he was also influenced by the interests of cattle ranchers and rice farmers in his state, who fear competition from vegan food companies. The Arkansas Cattlemen's Association and Arkansas Rice Federation worked with Hillman on the bill.
"The cattle farmers love this bill," he says. "Because they felt like they had put a lot of investment into making their brand—'Beef. It's what's for dinner,' and things like that—and people were trying to capitalize on the time and money they had spent."
Oregon cattle ranchers are restless, too.
Jerome Rosa, executive director of the Oregon Cattlemen's Association, says the group had a similar legislative concept for meat label restrictions that it considered moving forward in the last session of the Oregon Legislature. Rosa says the organization decided to prioritize other goals, but it might push for labeling laws next session.
"We just want consumers to know what they are actually getting," Rosa says. "And to make sure [plant-based food companies] aren't infringing on the name that beef has made for itself."
Rosa says he's heard from members of the organization who are worried.
"We see cow's milk has lost about 13 percent of the shelf space to other products such as almond, coconut and soy milk," he says. "We see the same thing happening with [the meat industry]."
Howell of the Animal Legal Defense Fund says plant-based food has the cattle industry sweating.
"These laws are being passed at the behest of influential industries to protect animal agricultural interests in the state," she says. "[Ranchers] are really just trying to take a bite out of their competition by having these laws passed."
Ranchers also fear something else—rural interests losing ground to urban trends. In this case, veganism. (While the growth in plant-based food sales is growing, and largely driven by millennials, data from Gallup indicates fewer than 1 in 10 Americans adhere to strict vegan or vegetarian diets.)
In a way, the war over labeling is not so different from the fight over Chick-fil-A or Duck Dynasty. It's about whose values and traditions will be protected. If pork sausage doesn't survive, what will become of pork country?
"As consumers have moved away from the farms and ranches and rural communities their ancestors lived on, many of them lost the knowledge of how their food is produced," says Burkham of the Arkansas Cattlemen's Association. "But there is a resurgence in consumers wanting to know where their food comes from."
Missouri was the first state to pass a meat label law, followed by Nebraska, Kentucky and Wyoming.
"Yes, you have the right to free speech," says Hillman, the Arkansas lawmaker. "But you don't have the right to yell 'Fire!' in a crowded theater. I just want people to know what they're getting when they buy it."
If Tofurky loses its legal battle, it could be forced to rebrand or pull its products from shelves. (It sued Missouri last August, and Arkansas this July.)
"All it takes in Missouri is for one of 115 county prosecutors to decide they have a problem with our marketing or packaging and we could be a defendant in court instead of a plaintiff," Athos says. "It's either take our products off the marketplace, deprive our consumers of our products, or take that little bit of legal risk—and we've decided to put our mission above comfort."
Athos was lassoed into the lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Animal Legal Defense Fund. He says lawyers at the organizations were "looking for somebody who's really impacted by this sort of legislation" to be a plaintiff.
Athos eagerly signed Tofurky up.
The coalition claims meat labeling restrictions are unconstitutional and harm consumers.
"[Arkansas' law] would allow local governments that are captured by a particular industry to regulate the speech of competing companies and to confuse the consumer," says Brian Hauss, a staff attorney for the ACLU. "For example, consumers intuitively understand what a veggie burger is. It would be very confusing to call it a plant-based protein cake."
Tofurky isn't the only company with products on the line. But Athos says competitors like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat haven't joined the lawsuit because they are tied down by the interests of public shareholders, who don't want open war with state legislatures.
Athos says Tofurky is unique in that it is family-owned and doesn't have a conglomerate of stakeholders to appease. But, he adds, "[other companies] privately tell me, 'Thank you for doing this on behalf of the industry.'"
In Arkansas, Tofurky and its attorneys have filed for a temporary injunction to suspend enforcement of the law. In Missouri, another yearlong lawsuit is still at an impasse, with court-ordered mediation talks scheduled to take place this month.
Athos calls his crusade against Arkansas and Missouri a "David-versus-Goliath story." But David is getting bigger.
According to a May study by the business research firm MarketsandMarkets, the plant-based meat trade is currently worth around $12.1 billion. And it's expected to grow to $27.9 billion by 2025.
Much of that growth is fueled by millennials, many of whom aren't vegetarian or vegan but have made it a habit to reduce their meat intake.
That's still a sliver of the meat market: Data from the Good Food Institute shows plant-based products make up roughly 2 percent of the total consumer market for meat.
The companies' success represents a shift in consumer trends. In the past decade, as climate change has become more dire and people move away from animal products, vegan foods have moved into mainstream popularity.
"These products are selling so well and are so popular not because people mistake them for meat," Howell says, "but because people have become increasingly concerned about the effect their diet has on the health of the environment and animal welfare."
People are eating as if the planet is at stake.
Globally, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, agriculture and other land-use sectors account for 24 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. That's more than the transportation sector, which contributes to 14 percent of global carbon emissions.
And maybe ranchers are right to be scared. Because here's Tofurky's dark secret: It's a gateway drug to meat-free eating.
Let's be blunt: The tofu-based alternatives taste like spicy rubber. They're formed like familiar meat products (patties, dogs and deli slices) but are at best distant cousins of their animal kingdom analogs. The spongy herb slices are training wheels—for people who want to eat less meat but use the same recipes.
Athos calls these eaters "flexitarians," and says they've always been Tofurky's target consumer.
"Those transitional types of eaters are where the real change happens," he says, "because there's a chance to take meat off the plate and replace it with something plant-based that's healthier for that person and for the environment also."
Tibbott, Tofurky's founder, and the nation's tofu king, is confident.
And why not? He used to fry tempeh in the back of a health food store. Now he's taking on giants.
"I think in a hundred years, when you look back, the companies that embraced [plant-based foods] are the ones that are going to succeed. And the other guys will be left behind," he says. "The famous quote, of course, is: 'First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.'"
How the Sausage Isn't Made: A Journey Through the Tofurky Factory in 7 Parts
STEP 1: MIX: The main ingredients in Tofurky's meat products are liquid tofu and gluten—which look like bread dough when mixed together.
STEP 2: SHAPE: After raw ingredients are mixed, the dough tofu is formed into either sausage links or the chuds that become deli slices.
STEP 3: BAKE: Tofurky links bake in large ovens for three hours so that the
gluten sets properly.
STEP 4: QUALITY CONTROL: Workers help feed sausage links through a metal detector, a step required by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
STEP 5: VACUUM SEAL: The links are lined up in this machine, then vacuum-sealed. Afterward, Tofurky products have a shelf life of about 150 days.
STEP 6: PASTEURIZE: Once sealed, all Tofurky' products are pasteurized in a hot water bath before being boxed and shipped.
STEP 7: BOX: Roughly 27 employees work in the Tofurky factory on any given day. Much of the process is automated.
In a Blind Taste Test, Tofurky Can't Yet Match the Real Thing.
When is a brat not a brat? That's a matter for the courts to decide.
Is a tofu brat the best of the wurst? That's a question of taste. So we tasted.
WW visited local grocers to purchase four different plant-based sausages—Field Roast Italian sausage, Lightlife veggie dogs, Tofurky Italian sausage and Beyond Meat sausage—to rank against real Aidells Italian-style chicken sausage.
Tasters gave the brats a ranking from one to five dogs. Here's how the fake sausages stacked up, from worst to meat.