Since going vegan, we occasionally consume some meat alternatives and usually reach for Tofurky products. We enjoy their Breakfast Sausage links, Beer Brats, Italian Sausages, and Kielbasa. We even had a cookout for our omnivorous family members with the brats and sausages, which they enjoyed! I reached out to Tofurky to express our gratitude for making these different products for vegans everywhere and never expected such an awesome response.
None other than the founder of Tofurky, Seth Tibbott, responded to my email. I was totally shocked and amazed at how down to earth he was and he promptly agreed to answer some of my questions. I was really curious about his story and the history of Tofurky and excited to hear what led to such a successful company who hasn't lost sight of what is important (hint: their customers!). Check out how it all began and why he chose to live in a treehouse for seven years below!
Seth: I became a vegetarian, not a vegan, in 1973 after reading Francis Moore Lappe's book, Diet For A Small Planet. She beautifully explained that animals were a wasteful way to produce protein which made sense to my environmental/naturalist ears. After this initial environmental-based conversion, I looked at the health benefits and the ethics of not eating animals and the diet added up from those angles, too.
Several years later, I became a "pure vegetarian" (vegan was not a term used yet) after visiting The Farm, an intentional community in Tennessee. After that, I cycled back and forth between vegetarian and vegan diets, finally settling onto my current vegan diet which I don't plan to ever leave. Looking back, this change to plant-based foods was one of the top three decisions that I made in this life.
LRJ: Take me back 35 years and tell me how you started making tempeh as a hobby. What inspired you to start there?
Seth: When I first stopped eating meat, my mom was really worried about me getting enough protein. I told her to relax; I was eating soybeans and felt fine. At that time I was eating a lot of soy grit burgers, not the most digestable or tastiest of things, but pretty decent. When I went to The Farm in Tennessee, I learned about tempeh and bought some starter from them.
I was working in Tennessee during the hot summer of 1977 and I went home and made some tempeh right away, putting it out to incubate in a bread pan covered with tin foil in a field by Lake Nolichucky, where I was working as an environmental specialist. The next morning, a beautiful white fluffy crop of mold grew on my beans. It smelled great and I cooked it up with some silver queen sweet corn, okra, and tomatoes. It was one of the best meals of my life. I still salivate thinking about that meal!
LRJ: After you decided to focus on plant-based protein, you founded Turtle Island Foods in 1980. How big was the demand for plant protein and how did you gain your foothold with health food stores?
Seth: In 1980, the natural food movement was in its infancy in Portland, Oregon. There were about six main stores, two of which were in dark warehouse sort of spaces and not much to look at. There was also one vegan restaurant. It was pretty easy getting space in those stores. When I approached Nature's, the biggest store in town, they said, "Cool! Now we can fill up our shelves with something! Do you have any more products?" Today it's a little bit harder to place products on shelves!
Few people had heard of tempeh so there was a lot of education and demos involved, of which I personally did several hundred. My vision was centered around the fact that in college you had to make your own granola, yogurt, and other foods because none was available (except for at the hippie head shop that I worked in that sold rainbow-colored bags of granola right under the rolling papers). Five years later, there was a whole shelf of granola in every supermarket in America. I thought that tempeh would follow the same path.
LRJ: Your family helped finance some of your ventures in the beginning and you put up $2,500 of your own. What were you focusing on for those first couple of years that have helped you succeed and expand in the early 80's?
Seth: Turtle Island and Tofurky worked because they had to work. There was no "Plan B" for me. I probably should have quit somewhere after the first ten years of only making $300 or less a month but the business was never about money. Working hard, doing everything from production to sales and marketing and accounting gave me a deep respect and appreciation for the people who we now employ to do those jobs here. It's hard work producing and marketing a food product. I am grateful of everyone on our team here and I want to increase everyone's benefits and work environment here. The last 33 years have been a great learning experience; very thrilling, but also very humbling.
LRJ: Tell me about your tree house! As a minimalist enthusiast, I'd love to hear how that process was, and possible delve into that deeper in another interview/blog post. What made you decide to live in a three-story tree house, and how did that affect you personally?
Seth: When you aren't making much money, life becomes a creative game of survival. I rented the trees for $25 a month and spent about $2,000 on the treehouse that I lived very comfortably in for seven years. That comes to about $60 a month when you include utilities, or 1/5 of my monthly salary, so that was about right. I was single and did not have a family to support at that time. There were actually two other treehouses in our valley which inspired me to build mine, and we would call each other to check in when the wind would blow strong over the mountains. My treehouse was 11'x16' with a deck, sleeping loft and cupola. I had a telephone, wood stove, propane cookstove, running water, electricity and a treehouse "peehouse". All the essentials!
LRJ: When you develop new products, what kinds of things are in the back of your mind and how do you gauge what will fly off the shelves?
Seth: New product development is always a risk. It's as much intuition and art as it is science certainly, and no one ever bats 1000%. We try and stay close to our customers and listen to what they are telling us. Facebook and social media of course makes this much easier than ever to do. We also try and pay attention to what we ourselves can't get but want. Currently we have a great Research & Development team here that takes it's time and mostly gets things right.
Seth: When Tofurky hit the market in 1995, our fortunes changed. We moved from a non-profitable regional company to a slightly-profitable national company. It was pretty cool how it happened so suddenly thanks to all the media attention. I remember I was at this party of people I hardly knew around Thanksgiving. I was walking from room to room and everywhere I went I was overhearing people talking about this crazy Tofurky product. The next day I went to work and the phone was ringing off the hook. Once I had to put The Wall Street Journal reporter on hold to talk to The Washington Post! Pretty heady times for a small town guy living in a tree.
Special thanks to Seth for taking some time out of his busy life to speak with The Little Red Journal!