A run to the grocery store will have many of us reaching for one of Tofurky’s delicious vegan food options. We love the product but the man behind the ubiquitous brand didn’t exactly set out to dominate a category. The beginning of Tofurky was as humble as the founder himself.
Seth Tibbott started the company 40 years ago using his entire savings, which totaled $2,500. While the first years were far from successful from a financial standpoint, what Seth learned about business was invaluable in helping guide the direction and growth of Tofurky, always having at the core a desire to create a mission-based company.
Seth’s journey is captured in his recent book In Search of the Wild Tofurky from which many vegan entrepreneurs draw inspiration.
vWire spoke with Seth Tibbott about his journey and what advice he can share with the new generation of entrepreneurs entering the VegEconomy™.
When did you begin your vegan journey?
I began my vegan journey in 1971 when I was 20 years old. It was then that I became a vegetarian after reading Francis Moore Lappe’s book “Diet for a Small Planet”. That book taught me what a horribly inefficient use of land it was to eat animals. Two years later I first experimented with what was then called a “pure vegetarian diet”, aka vegan diet, after visiting The Farm in Tennessee. The 1200 members of this community were vegans for spiritual reasons. “I’ve been to pig stickings and rice boilings and the vibes are better at rice boilings than pig stickings”, said Stephen Gaskin, the spiritual leader, in what was the understatement of all time.
You started in 1980 but your big breakthrough came in 1995 when you pivoted to tofu and introduced Tofurky roast. What kept you going all those years?
Growing up I never imagined that I would ever have a career in business, so it was pretty thrilling being in business for the first 15 years. The business was very small and unprofitable during that time. For the first 9 years in business I paid myself a total of $31,000 which comes out to around $290 per month. But two things kept me going. First, I had gone into business with the mission of bringing tasty, low on the food chain, plant-based foods to people. So even though the money wasn’t there, the mission was alive and well, growing slowly year by year. Secondly, I had no plan B. I was all in with this business and had no other skills that would keep me alive in the rural, mountains of Washington state where I wanted to live. Having a mission and going all in are both keys to success. Tofurky worked because it HAD to work and having a mission kept me in the game for 15 years of poor pay until I found the Wild Tofurky.
Today Tofurky can be found in grocery shelves across the globe. How have consumers tastes evolved from the early days to now and how do you stay one step ahead?
Currently we are up to 55 products available in over 25,000 stores worldwide. The main way consumer tastes have changed is they are more demanding now because there are so many great tasting options available now. Back in the early 1980s, if you found ANY vegan product you were thrilled. There was a lower bar about what was an acceptable taste profile in a vegan product. We love that there are so many brilliant, tasty options on the market today and we want all vegan brands to succeed. We try and stay ahead of the game by focusing our R&D and marketing efforts on creating incredible tastes. We go home at night pondering how we can make our products tastier while other companies might be focusing more on making products cheaper. To be fair, we recognize the need to be profitable but here at Tofurky, “Taste is King!”
Plant-based products are seeing a huge growth. How has COVID19 impacted that growth?
In the early days of COVID19 there was a lot of panic buying and even some shortages of animal based meats. This led some consumers to trial plant-based proteins. It was like a giant in-store demo. Since then, buying patterns have dropped back closer to normal but due to some of these trials, we have obtained new customers and are having a very good year. I think that with the origins of COVID19 being animal based it has given many people food for thought and helped them connect the dots and examine our food system more closely.
What would you say defines Tofurky’s business culture?
Tofurky HQ is an efficient but informal, oftentimes fun, place to work. As a B Corp, we pride ourselves on being generous and understanding employers. We pay 100% of everyone’s health insurance and have a retirement savings program that we put money into every month. With COVID19, we have had to put this understanding to the test by being as flexible as we can with our employees increased needs for the care of their loved ones. But underlying it all is an attempt to not take ourselves too seriously.
What advice do you have for vegan business entering the VegEconomy?
Keep the mission in mind and look for possible “pivots” as you go forward. Having a mission is the superpower of all vegan businesses. Every vegan business has some mission baked into its DNA at some level. The mission will keep you in the game. But as you grow, the market changes and your understanding of the market changes along with it. You become “less stupid” the longer you stay in the game so be alert and ready to apply this newfound lack of stupidity by modifying or completely ditching your original plan.
When it’s time to scale up, what should vegan business owners keep in mind?
Scaling up is always challenging and full of surprises so have patience and a good compost pile nearby. You would think that just multiplying the original recipe would work but there’s a huge difference between producing a one-pound batch of anything and a 1,000 pound batch of anything. But don’t settle for getting it “almost right”. The last 10% of effort that you put into perfecting the scale up product can mean the difference between a so-so product and an epic game changing product.
You’ve said you’re obsessed with the future. What would you say is the future of plant-based food in the US?
I am obsessed with the future which is of course foolish. But the only way I can make any sense of the future is by studying the past. I am doing a lot of reading on Vegetarian/Vegan history. In particular I am fascinated by the 1800s in the USA when the first vegetarian products were being introduced. These early entries were crude, sold mostly via mail order in cans and required a lot of dedication to prepare and enjoy. Vegetarianism as we know it is just over 200 years old in the USA now. When you read about the struggles of these early veg folks and compare it to the plethora of products we see in virtually all supermarkets today, it’s breathtaking. And it allows me to extrapolate 200 years into the future where I see plant-based foods as the paradigm and animal based foods a very small specialty item. People wanting animal-based foods will need to special order their foods ahead of time when travelling and need apps to direct them to the few restaurants that still serve them. The veganizing of the world is starting to come on fast now. I can feel it.
In Search of the Wild Tofurky was so inspirational, do you have plans to write another book?
Have been toying around with writing a vegan scifi novel that looks into the future and also a history book, or possibly a documentary, on Vegetarian History. Glad you liked In Search of the Wild Tofurky. Was a fun book to write and a mostly fun life to live!