Success

Tofurky's creator was living in a treehouse when he invented the tofu 'bird' that's still a Thanksgiving staple

A sampling of Tofurky packaging from years past.
Source: The Tofurky Company

Before there was Beyond Meat, you had the Tofurky. 

Twenty-five years ago, inspiration struck for hippie entrepreneur Seth Tibbott, who owned a natural foods company and lived in a 300-square-foot treehouse he'd built himself in Northern Oregon.

At the time, Tibbott was barely clearing $15,000 a year selling tempeh (a vegetarian protein made from fermented soybeans) to vegetarian-friendly grocery stores and health food purveyors up and down the West Coast through his company, Turtle Island Foods.

What's more, Tibbott had been trying — unsuccessfully — for several years to come up with an entree that could become a popular meatless option for vegetarians, like himself, who were used to sticking to side dishes at Thanksgiving.

The solution came in the form of the Tofurky Holiday Roast, a round tofu loaf with wild rice and bread crumb stuffing, topped with vegetarian gravy. Tibbott, now 68, first unveiled the Tofurky in the fall of 1995 and sold over 500 of the veggie loaves that Thanksgiving season to his existing customers in the Portland, Oregon market. He sold another 300 or so through the end of the year to holiday diners.

Two and a half decades later, the vegetarian creation has sold over five million units in total. 

Tofurky's success might come as a surprise to those who think of it as a relic in an age of innovative vegetarian gastronomy, with brands like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat aiming to replicate the taste of meat. (Tofurky still aims only to taste like tofu with added seasonings like onion, garlic and rosemary extract.) And it's true that selling a few hundred thousand Tofurkys a year pales in comparison to the number of turkeys Americans eat at Thanksgiving (roughly 45 million per year), and even to trendy plant-based meat's numbers (in October Beyond Meat reported net grocery sales of $50.5 million in just its third quarter).

But over the years Tofurky sales ticked upward as it became a safe haven at the annual Thanksgiving table for millions of vegetarians — as well as something of a quirky oddity for carnivores everywhere, inspiring enduring punchlines from headline writers and late-night comedians for decades 

Now, in addition to the fall and winter holiday-themed tofu roasts, The Tofurky Company makes a whole range of Tofurky-branded products that sell year-round, from plant-based sausages and burgers to "deli slices" for Tofurky sandwiches.

The company, which remains privately held, does not release recent revenue figures. But Tofurky reportedly had $14 million in sales in 2011 with a staff of 69 people, and the company tells CNBC Make It that it now employs nearly 200 people and added that the company has seen "significant growth" over the past five years.

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Treehouse origins

The company has come a long way since Tibbott started out in 1980 making his own tempeh for friends and family before deciding to launch a small business.

Tibbott had become a vegetarian in college at Wittenberg University in Ohio, where he majored in elementary education. He'd read a book called "Diet for a Small Planet," by Frances Moore Lappe, that opened his eyes to the environmental impact of meat production and spurred what has been a lifelong mission to promote vegetarian foods because of the fact that they require a significantly smaller environmental footprint to produce than the meat industry, he tells CNBC Make It. (Today, Tofurky is produced in a 44,000 square-foot LEED Platinum-certified manufacturing facility where the company harvests rainwater and uses solar panels to reduce its carbon footprint.)

After graduating, in 1974, Tibbott spent the rest of the '70s working as a teacher and a naturalist, including working on a 1,600-acre commune in Tennessee, where he learned how to make tempeh from soybeans. Tibbott preferred tempeh to his previous vegetarian diet of soybean burgers ("they tasted bad") and vanilla wafers, he tells CNBC Make It.

He moved to Oregon in 1980 and discovered a vibrant health food scene in Portland that he thought would be the perfect place to start a business selling his homemade tempeh to local grocers and natural foods stores.

Turtle Island Foods founder Seth Tibbott makes homemade tempeh
Source: The Tofurky Company

"I found a local co-op that had a kitchen they weren't using after 4 o'clock in the afternoon and they rented me the kitchen for $25 a month," Tibbott says of how he got the business started. He bought some used pots and pans and other kitchen equipment that allowed him to make about 100 pounds of tempeh each night that he would deliver to stores throughout the Portland area.

Still, money was tight, as Tibbott says he'd typically clear about $300 in take home pay in a good month during the business's early years (that's the equivalent of about $717 per month today, based on inflation).

Even though Tibbott was only making a couple of hundred dollars a month to start, after a few years he managed to rent the commercial kitchen of an abandoned schoolhouse in Husum, Washington, roughly 70 miles east of Portland, for about $150 per month. In order to save money on rent, he negotiated a deal with a neighbor near the schoolhouse who rented him three trees and allowed him to build a treehouse that he'd live in for seven years.

He used recycled lumber and other repurposed materials to build the treehouse, in which he installed a wood stove. He rented the three trees for $25 a month, which came to $8.33 per tree, he says: "Not bad."

Seth Tibbott Tofurky Treehouse Huddleston 191126 1

Tibbott lived in the treehouse and worked at the nearby schoolhouse kitchen, where he also showered, until he got married in 1991 and moved into the house owned by his wife, Suzanne Spowart. By that time, Turtle Island Foods had a handful of employees and a distribution line that sold tempeh up and down the West Coast. However, Tibbott is quick to point out that he was just barely getting by.

"I was still not destitute, but I was pretty poor," he says. "I mean I was living on probably 12 or 15 grand a year, or something like that."

While the tempeh business wasn't extremely lucrative, Tibbott says he remained optimistic that it still had room to grow — enough so that he says he turned down a $25,000 buyout offer from a nearby tofu maker in 1987. "I thought about it and ended up saying, 'This is a pretty screwed up little business, but it's my screwed up little business.' And I just wasn't ready," he says.

"The company was growing bit by bit, and I was still driven by this [mission] to bring this efficient, low on the food chain, food to America," Tibbott tells CNBC Make It. "So it was like the mission really allowed me to stay in the game until I had the Tofurky moment, in 1995."

The birth of the Tofurky

That "Tofurky moment" came only after Tibbott had spent several years trying to come up with the perfect vegetarian entree that could stand in for a Thanksgiving turkey or holiday roast so vegetarians wouldn't have to live on vegetables alone.

Each year, Tibbott says, "as Thanksgiving would always approach there'd always be the question, not just among me, but among friends," of what sort of food could serve as the centerpiece of a vegetarian's holiday meal. For several years running, Tibbott experimented with various options that found little success, including a stuffed pumpkin, packed with rice and vegetables that "kind of collapsed in the oven and it wasn't great," Tibbott says. Another year, he tried a gluten roast (made of seitan, or wheat gluten) "that was too tough to really cut or eat," he adds.

In the end, the solution came from a friend and client named Hans Wrobel, who owned a vegetarian food company in Portland, and who had been making and selling a small amount of stuffed tofu loaves with vegan gravy. "I bought one and tried it and said, 'Hans, this is pretty good,'" Tibbott remembers.

The two entrepreneurs formed a partnership, with Tibbott adding a set of eight hand-pressed tempeh "drumsticks" to Wrobel's tofu loaf and selling the products to Tibbott's existing network of distributors along the West Coast. And while Wrobel was intent on calling their joint product a "stuffed holiday roast," Tibbott says, it was Tibbott's idea to borrow a name he'd once seen on a tofu sandwich: Tofurky.

"I just loved the name Tofurky," says Tibbott, who adds that he got permission to use the moniker.

The first incarnation of the Tofurky weighed in at more than three pounds and came with the eight drumsticks, plus gravy, at a price of $30. That was costly, especially at a time when an actual turkey cost an average of around $1 per pound in the U.S. (A Tofurky roast today is just one pound, 10 ounces, and costs under $12 on Instacart.)

Despite the high price tag and limited distribution, the Tofurky was an instant local success. There was enough interest at stores and co-ops in Portland and Seattle that one location in the latter city started a "Tofurky hotline," Tibbott says, in order for customers to call ahead and place their orders. (This is reminiscent of the poultry company Butterball's famous annual hotline, called the Turkey Talk Line, that answers customers' questions about cooking their Thanksgiving turkeys.)

Original Tofurky Feast Huddleston 191126 1

The new product even caught the attention of local media, with Oregon Public Broadcasting reporting on the Tofurky while a local NBC station showed up at Wrobel's home to broadcast him and his family carving into a Tofurky on Thanksgiving.

"I just had never seen anything like it," Tibbott says.

That first year, Tibbott included comment cards with each Tofurky, looking to solicit customer feedback on the new item. Some customers sent back notes on areas to improve. For instance, the pure tofu loaf didn't maintain its texture very well upon freezing (to be delivered to more distant markets in California) and then being thawed, so Tibbott retooled the recipe, adding seitan to keep the texture more consistent.

But many customers also sent back rave reviews.

"We were just blown away," says Tibbott. "They were saying, 'Oh, I've been waiting 20 years for this ... I don't feel like a second class citizen anymore at the Thanksgiving table … I'm part of the celebration.' So that was pretty cool [and] we kind of knew right from the start that we had found this niche."

The following year, they sold over 1,800 Tofurkys, Tibbott says, and that number jumped to about 18,000 units in 1997, as the company's success had allowed Tibbott to invest in advanced equipment that made production simpler and more cost effective, which in turn lowered the price of a Tofurky to under $20. Sales continued to climb throughout the 1990s as a media storm quickly brewed around Tibbott's product.

"One time, I put The Washington Post on hold to talk to The New York Times," Tibbott says of the attention the Tofurky quickly generated from the national media that was drawn to his vegetarian novelty with a goofy name. In subsequent years, Tibbott's company received visits from the likes of Ted Koppel with ABC's "Nightline," The Food Network, and countless other television networks looking for interviews.

"For a small company to be getting this kind of media, I mean, it was just like every fall the trees would turn orange and yellow and the Tofurky media storm would start up," Tibbott says now.

Sales continued to grow from there, hitting 100,000 Tofurky roasts sold by 2001 and 3 million a little over a decade later, in 2012.

As the company's success continued to spread and sales reached millions of dollars per year, Tibbott has still resisted any major lifestyle changes, choosing to invest much of the profit back into the steadily growing company, he says.

Today, The Tofurky Company's products are in 27,000 stores worldwide and the company sold its 5 millionth Tofurky in the fall of 2018. Looking ahead, Tibbott says the company — which is now run by Tibbott's stepson, CEO Jaime Athos — expects to sell upwards of 400,000 Tofurky roasts overall in 2019, and Tibbott has his sights set on eventually hitting the 10 million mark.

As for the idea that his company and the Tofurky helped pave the way for the current growing trend of plant-based meats made by start-ups with multibillion-dollar valuations, like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, Tibbott is more than happy to see more companies capturing the public imagination with plant-based meat alternatives.

"We like this, what Beyond Meat has done," Tibbott says. "We like Impossible [Foods], what they've done, because we want all plant-based food companies to succeed."

After all, those brands bring attention to the plant-based foods movement that can help lift the sales of all brands in that category, says Tibbott.

"Our goals are just to increase the awareness and taste and texture and flavor of these plant based foods … to wean people off of animal proteins in a sustainable way that makes it easy on people and tasty for people to do that."

Don't Miss:

How Beyond Meat won over meat-eaters with a vegan burger that 'bleeds'

How a struggling clarinet player used $15,000 in credit card debt to launch Blue Bottle Coffee

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