The “overnight” success of Tofurky, a vegan holiday roast created by Seth Tibbott, was at least fifteen years in the making, with plenty of long hours, speed bumps, and heartbreaking reversals. In this 25th anniversary year, Tibbott has released a book chronicling how it all happened, In Search of the Wild Tofurky.
Originally, tempeh was the be-all and end-all for parent company Turtle Island Foods. Tibbott worked to make tempeh “the next granola” — a product that moves from the hippie-health-store fringes onto mainstream supermarket shelves. His drive kept him learning, making mistakes, and then learning from the mistakes. From pans of tempeh in his own kitchen, Tibbott moved to a shared kitchen, then to an abandoned school building where he rented the extra rooms to professional clowns who were also piano tuners.
From a couple of hard-working, dedicated friends sharing crazy hours, the operation slowly expanded with employees. Tibbott noticed the unfilled niche of a vegan holiday roast and figured out how to fill it. In 1995, he and a local chef adapted a tofu-based centerpiece to sell nationally. Over the next three years he had three different recipes and improved the texture with the addition of seitan, now used today. The goofy “Tofurky” name and unique concept grabbed media attention, making advertising unnecessary.
Soon there was a competitor — Now & Zen’s “Unturkey,” which flourished alongside Tofurky for years without really denting its market share. A few years later, Unturkey’s inventor, Miyoko Schinner, turned her attention to vegan cheese and redefined that sector just as Tofurky had done for alt-meat.
In a phone interview, Tibbott said, “Schinner’s Unturkey was a really good product, like everything she touches,” and when she told him about her new cheese initiative, he encouraged her to start her own company. Now, years later, Tofurky is about to launch its own vegan cheese — in fact, would have launched already, but the pandemic canceled this spring’s promotional rollout events. Tibbott is now looking toward a launch in the fall. “We’ve been working on it for three or four years. It’s gone from front burner to back burner and back again.”
Just as Unturkey and Tofurky coexisted and built the market for holiday meat alternatives, Miyoko’s cheese and Tofurky’s cheese can coexist and build the vegan cheese category to its fullest potential, he says. “Miyoko’s done such a great job revolutionizing dairy.”
Meanwhile, he hasn’t forgotten tempeh. “Yeah, I’m still a big believer. In fact, I had it for dinner last night. It’s a good food for now, when we’re hunkering down.” And while he acknowledges Tofurky’s superior shelf life, he notes there’s “just something about tempeh made in your own house. If you eat it fresh, it’s miles ahead of anything you can get packaged, even from us.” So… would he still call it the next granola? Hardly.
“Tempeh is poised to be the next kombucha.”
This is a condensed excerpt from the cover story of American Vegan magazine’s spring 2020 issue, which will be sent out to AVS members soon. Read the entire piece and more, in that issue and others, by becoming a member.