The Inventor of Tofurky on Business of T-Day

Many small business owners get a healthy boost to the bottom lines on Turkey day. One such entrepreneur, Seth Tibbott, the president and founder of Turtle Island Foods, said he created the profit-maker Tofurky out of necessity -- because he was vegetarian.

Today over one million Tofurky's, have been sold since the product’s creation in 1995. Turtle Island Foods, the parent company of Tofurky, is the world’s second-biggest maker of tempeh, popular pressed cakes made from lightly fermented whole beans. Although business is booming now, Tibbott said it took years of making $300 a month and living in a tree house to get it off the ground.

“We are mission driven as much as we are money driven,” said Tibbott.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for your company?

Tibbott: I started Turtle Island foods in 1980. We were a tempeh company. My mom was always concerned [about] where I was getting my protein because I was a vegetarian. She was concerned about that which led me to soy products. [He thought], it will be the next granola or yogurt.

All through this as a vegetarian, I was looking for products to eat for Thanksgiving. These recipes were long and involved. We were looking for something that would take the place of a turkey that would be high protein and would be a peacemaking kind of product. Tofurky was inspired by my personal needs and experiences.

Q: How did you become the second-largest tempeh maker in the world?

Tibbott: Showing up for work and turning the key every day … and innovating different products. Tempeh had been sold as a cake. Tofu came out way before tempeh. When tempeh came out, people thought it was another type of tofu and they thought it was terrible when they ate it raw .. It is a product you have to know how to cook.

Q: Today how is business, and has commodity pricing impacted it?

Tibbott: It has been a good year for us. People are still eating, and eating at home more …We are the number-one selling meatless deli slice in the U.S. We have extra thin slices that make 50% more sandwiches than the competitor. Last year, it was a little harder with commodity pricing. This year has been more stable in the commodity market.

Q: What is your main advice for small business owners?

Tibbott: Perseverance furthers. … there certainly were times … when I was considering, ‘Is this going to ever pan out; is it worth it?’. We are a little bit different than a traditional business. We are mission driven as much as we are money driven. I lived on $300 bucks a month for [about] ten years and … in a tree house when I was building the business.

It was just learning to keep your personal overhead low and doing what needs to be done to keep the dream afloat. Persevering through all that makes you stronger and more committed to the dream. I was a teacher before I was a business man. I was really driven by the idea I want to make this soy product available to the world.

Q: Where do you see the vegetarian movement headed in this economy?

Tibbott: I think that the vegetarian movement is on strong footing [because] it is a much more sustainable way to eat. Animals are like a protein machine in reverse. You give me 18 lbs of soybeans, and I will give you 20lbs of tempeh. I think ethanol is a creative idea, but if we are going to grow grains for our cars and our bodies, that is where vegetarianism comes in. There are green reasons for eating lower on the food chains.

Q: What would an ideal vegan Thanksgiving meal look like to you?

Tibbott: There would be a Tofurky centerpiece. There are so many great side dishes, yams, green peas and pearl onions, salads. I also bring Tofurky gravy.