From a Treehouse to Tofurky: The Long, Winding Path of a Vegetarian Meat Company


A Tofurky holiday roast; Photo: Courtesy Tofurky

If you want to talk Tofurky with Seth Tibbott, the man who came up with the vegan holiday roast, he sends you a PowerPoint presentation first humbly called “The Tofurky Story: A Great American ‘Rags to Better Rags’ Tale.”

It belies the sense of humor of a man who worked for 15 years at a fledgling tempeh company before having a eureka moment with Tofurky, a fake turkey roast made of wheat protein and tofu that caught the attention of national media in the mid 1990s.

Using the hype, he transitioned the company into a global leader in meat alternatives. This year, the company projects it will sell more than 325,000 roasts, bringing the total to 4 million sold since they were created. According to Nielsen, Tofurky was the number one brand of meat-free deli slices and sausages in the world in 2014.

And it almost never happened because of Tibbott’s love of tree houses.

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Seth Tibbott’s three-story treehouse; Photo: Courtesy Seth Tibbott

He’d been living in one since 1985, when on a good month he’d pull in $300 making tempeh, a fermented soy product with roots in Southeast Asia.

“I wondered how I could live cheaply. I rented three trees for $25 a month — that’s $8.33 a tree,” Tibbott says.

He built a three-story house to live in, complete with electricity, a mini fridge, a party-line phone and a “treehouse peehouse” (no shower, though) and ended up staying there for seven years. He even got an offer to write a book on treehouses.

He was showering at the former elementary school in Husum, Wash., which he had been using as a production facility for his tempeh since 1983.

“It was right around when Tofurky came along, and you have to think about which dream you want to follow. I followed the Tofurky star,” he says.

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Seth Tibbott in 1980 when he first started a tempeh company; Photo: Courtesy Seth Tibbott

Tibbott, now 64, has been a vegetarian since the early 1970s, had grown frustrated with eating sides for Thanksgiving, and chronicled notable failures of making a vegetarian main course. There was the Stuffed Pumpkin of 1975, which collapsed in the oven, the Too Tough Gluten Roast of 1981, which took all day to make and a chainsaw to cut, and the Lasagna of 1984, which was actually pretty good but didn’t have anything to do with the holiday.

In 1995, he teamed up with a local catering company to create the first Tofurky, which was made from chopped up tofu that was pressed into a colander lined with cheese cloth to create a hemisphere. The cavity was filled with stuffing and a layer of tofu was laid over top it. Tempeh drumettes came on the side. They were expensive to make and sell, and didn’t freeze well, but the vegan main dish caught the attention of Phil Lempert, the founder of Supermarket Guru. He brought the product onto a segment of the Today Show, and the product took off.

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“We were a small little company that got a big national following,” he says. “I had to put the Washington Post on hold to talk to the New York Times.”

To meet growing demand, the roasts went through a series of revisions, eventually incorporating in seitan, which is wheat gluten, so the roasts would freeze better and eventually a machine that shaped the roasts rather than forming them by hand.

Once manufacturing the roasts was set, the company needed to diversify. In 1998, Tibbott took another cue from the turkey industry and saw how they sold product all year round. He followed suit with his meat-free versions, creating sausages, deli slices, and ground Tofurky to be used in other dishes. Innovation is key component to the brand, and it continually adds new products, including pizza and hot-pocket style snacks. Now the holiday roasts only make up about 16 percent of the company’s overall sales.

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The current Tofurky Holiday Feast usually retails for around $27 and the Roast for about $13; Photo: Courtesy Tofurky

And while Tofurky remains the household name, there’s competition heating up the vegetarian main dish category, says Errol Schweizer, the global executive grocery coordinator for Whole Foods Market.

Now there’s Gardein Holiday Roasts with fancy fixings like cranberry kale stuffing, and soy-free Field Roasts made with high-end ingredients like foraged chanterelle mushrooms, nettle leaves, and sprouted quinoa, he says.

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And many vegetarian gourmands aren’t satisfied with a meat substitute anymore. Growing up vegetarian and eating Tofurky with her family was what inspired Katherine Sacks, an assistant food editor with Epicurious, to create the Vegducken, a vegetarian take on the Turducken, a deboned chicken stuffed into a duck stuffed into a turkey. The vegetarian version is a scallion in a zucchini in an eggplant in a butternut squash, with savory stuffing spread throughout.

“I wanted to create something spectacular for vegetarians to cook for Thanksgiving,” she says. “This is just as exciting as a roast turkey — even more exciting.”

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The Vegducken post has already become the site’s most popular post of the entire year, receiving 20 times the traffic a standard story receives on the site, according to Epicurious.

But Tibbott isn’t worried. More interest in a vegetarian lifestyle and even more competition makes it easier to get his product placed on grocery store shelves. And while the number of Americans eating meatless meals is on the rise, Tibbott speculates that at Thanksgiving, a lot of families will be hosting mixed Thanksgivings, and it’s a lot easier to pop a Tofurky in the oven than make a second elaborate main course.

“People have more to do on Thanksgiving than just spend the entire time in the kitchen,” he says.

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The first version of the Tofurky in 1995; Photo: Courtesy Tofurky

And international markets are making the future of Tofurky even more secure. Tibbott has handed over the CEO role to his stepson Jaime Anthos as he concentrates more on international sales, as the company expands into Europe and Australia.

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The company is opening up a new 44,000-square processing plant Hood River, Ore., in early 2016 that uses natural light, rainwater for the grey water in the building, solar panels on the roof and electric car charging stations outside. The project was debt-financed rather than by selling equity in the company — Tofurky is still family owned and operated, and has grown to about 120 employees.

“It’s unusual for company this size that has been in business this long to have the founders still involved and majority share holders,” Tibbott says.

Unusual, yes. Or just your typical American “Rags to Better Rags” story.

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