[As told to Adam Brown]
I turned vegetarian in college. I enjoyed the different sort of living, but I could tell the choice bothered the host of any Thanksgiving dinner I attended. What do you serve someone who won’t eat meat? I figured there were thousands like me, suffering through stuffed squash instead of well-basted drumsticks. Sometimes just looking around you can inspire an idea.
For my company, Turtle Island Foods, to take off, I needed to become an inventor. In the late 90s, we quite literally created a new food: We branded it, “Tofurky.” It took years to perfect the recipe. We would spend long days in a cramped kitchen, mixing 25-pound batches of the dough—a blend of tofu, wheat gluten, soy sauce, and spices—then bake it. I actually paid a business acquaintance for a recipe, and worked a bit off his idea. We often needed to replace the industrial-strength blenders. I could only afford used ones at that point. When the machines started to vibrate and move around the floor, it was time for a new one.
The first year we released the tofurky holiday dinner, it was this little round roast with eight drumsticks. We didn’t quite know what a Tofurky looked like then, but we knew it had eight legs. The hardest part was nailing the right texture. Simulating a meat taste is tricky. Creating a texture that’s appetizing is harder.
Turtle Island Foods existed for 15 years before Tofurky. It was that product though that finally shot my company into the black—and to considerable success. We’ve continued to grow past the initial boom years and through the recession: In 2006, we had about $8 million in revenue and employed 47 people. Last year, we took in more than $14 million. Our staff is now at 69. You can buy our products in grocery stores like Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, and Kroger. I’d like to think I owe the success to my tinkering, like any good inventor.
Other businesses, including the man who sold me the recipe, had tried to make a vegetarian holiday roast. We separated ourselves with our marketing strategy and branding. The competition tried to play it too straight. We had done that with our earlier products, which all failed to make any money.
No matter how you slice it, tofurky is a funny name. People told me it was stupid. I knew we needed to embrace it. We ran a contest, asking children to draw pictures of a Tofurky in the wild. I encouraged people to joke about the product. Like: Why did the Tofurky cross the road? To prove it wasn’t chicken.
That mentality really helped people embrace Tofurky, making it something of a cultural phonemenon. I have a stack of comic strips in my house, where the characters mention Tofurky. What do you want for dinner, dark tofurky or white tofurky? Something like that. The funny pages right before Thanksgiving are usually full of references.
In the first few years, we put feedback cards in the Tofurky packages, encouraging customers to write us and comment. I learned a lot about what they liked about our product and what they didn’t. The price needed to come down. With that came smaller packages. Also, my vision of our customers was wrong. I had envisioned a table of 10 vegetarians. It turned out to be one or two vegetarians at a typical Thanksgiving gathering, with Grandma or mum buying the Tofurky. One card in particular stands out in my memory from the rest. A woman wrote to thank us for making Tofurky. She no longer had to be a second-class citizen on Thanksgiving, she wrote.
I knew we needed to expand beyond our trendy holiday product. Thanksgiving would come—then the phones would go silent. To keep growing, I added to the product line. We introduced deli-style slices of Tofurky that grocers could stock in refrigerator cases. It was easy to convince the stores. They remembered how well the Tofurky holiday dinners sold. The slices proved more popular than I expected. Today Tofurky holiday products account for 15 per cent of sales. The slices, along with the sausages and the pizzas, all sell considerably more.
To reach this success, I’ve scrimped and saved and bootstrapped as much as anyone. When I was a young man, I rented four oak trees for $25 a month, and built a treehouse in the branches. I wanted any spare cash to go toward the business. When I married my wife, she made me come down from the tree.
This year my wife and I plan to host a quiet Thanksgiving at our farmhouse. Before the guests arrive, I’ll take a Tofurky outside, light up my smoker, and let it soak up the woody auromas for a while. I might pop up over to the factory, where we have staff answering phones—people frequently call up with questions about cooking Tofurky. Honestly I like any bit of customer interaction I get anymore. The feedback-card days are long gone.
Our guests will arrive. We’ll eat. And I’ll rest easy that night. While our success started with eight-legged faux-turkeys, future growth won’t rely on a single day.
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