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About Vernonia's voice. (Vernonia, OR) 2007-current | View Entire Issue (Jan. 5, 2010)
Pass the Tofurky, Please:
By Scott Laird
An Interview with Seth Tibbotts, Inventor of the Tofurky
sense of humor out into the marketplace. For the first
VV: Can you talk about the early years in Forest fifteen years of Turtle Island, I kept my sense of hu-
How many of you have ever spent a holiday Grove? What were you hoping to accomplish? Did mor in check and tried to play by the rules of other
meal with a vegetarian?
you find a receptive market for vegetarian products? natural foods companies which basically got me no-
It used to be that vegetarians were often left What did you learn that helped make you successful where. I was losing my shirt. Many people advised
out, or even forgotten, in the preparations for the big later?
me strongly against going to market with the Tofurky
family holiday feast
ST: In 1980, I invested $2500 which was all the money name. At trade shows, we would dress up like pilgrims
at Thanksgiving and
I had accumulated from my ten-year career as an envi- and walk by the big corporate competitors who would
Christmas. Don’t eat
ronmental educator, primarily in Washington County only shake their heads at the silly Tofurky people. But
turkey, ham or roast?
outdoor schools. I started making tempeh at night in actually, humor has been the secret to our success. It
I guess it’s salad, pota-
the Hope Neighborhood Co-op in Forest Grove for 3 seems strange to me that more natural foods compa-
toes and dinner rolls for
nies do not use more humor in their marketing. After
you. At least you can
• Support environmental education.
all, you forget the Pythagorean theorem, but everyone
have pie for dessert!
• Support myself in an earth-friendly way that was remembers a good joke! I am convinced that Tofurky
independent of the unpredictable winds of govern- would never have come out of a corporate setting.
Tofurky—it's not a
have sure changed, in joke—it's a real meat-
part because of a guy
• To bring high-quality tempeh products to market. VV: Your company, Turtle Island Foods, has seen
less option for the
named Seth Tibbott.
I thought tempeh would follow the same path as tremendous growth in recent years and appears to
And now vegetarians
other “hippie” foods like yogurt and granola.
have benefitted from a national interest in meatless
everywhere are enjoying an alternative especially de-
diets. Do you attribute your growth to smart business
signed to take the place of that holiday hunk of meat.
The natural foods stores in Portland were very practices, an exceptional product, or did you just hap-
Seth Tibbott is the founder and president of receptive to carrying our products. They were just get- pen to be in the right place at the right time.
Turtle Island Foods and the inventor of the Tofurky. ting started and their attitude was, “Wow, now we can ST: A little of everything, but timing and showing up
Maybe you’ve heard of it? Tofurky, once a punch line fill up our shelves with something! Do you have any for work everyday seem to be the cornerstones of our
used on TV for a laugh, has now become a cultural other products?” Very
icon-- a term used to describe any meat alternative your different than today,
veggie friends may substitute on a special occasion. where it is basically a
But Tofurky is actually a brand name for a product pro- street fight to get prod-
VV: “Tofurkey” has
duced by Turtle Island Foods in Hood River, who now ucts placed at retail.
become a colloquial-
have sales of over $10 million a year. They put their
ism for any holiday
first Tofurky on the market in the 1990’s and its popu- early days, I learned
meat substitute. I
larity and name recognition has increased yearly. And basic small business
have read about some
they make more than just their signature dish-- they management with the
references that were
also create alternative deli slices, sausages, links and help of Hope Co-op
made on television
franks-- even jerky. Tofurky is no longer a joke.
managers like Robert
programs over the
But Seth Tibbott, who started out making Tem- Grott. My mantra then
last few years about
peh almost thirty years ago, followed a long road to was “From the roots of
reach today’s success. And that road actually passed esoterism flowers ba-
obviously can’t hurt
close by Vernonia, just around the corner in Forest nality.” And of course, The Hope Co-op in Forest Grove where Seth Tibbotts got business. Can you
his start in the natural foods business.
learned the value of
comment on some
Vernonia’s Voice contacted Seth Tibbotts by hard work and sticking
of those early public
email and asked him about the early days of helping to with a project day after day. Turtle Island worked be- mentions of your product and how it feels to have
create an alternative meat culture, the invention of the cause it had to work. There was no plan B.
something you invented become a cultural reference?
Tofurky, and about his growing business today.
ST: The media exposure has been priceless. It sepa-
VV: Much of mainstream America understands the rates you from other brands. It is very good to become
Vernonia’s Voice: Where are you from originally, and benefits of vegetarianism. But in rural Oregon, many iconic and tied to a national holiday like Thanksgiv-
how did you end up in the Pacific Northwest, particu- people do not. What do you think are some of the ing. At first, nearly all the references to Tofurky were
larly Forest Grove?
important considerations, including economic and humorous because no one thought anyone would be
Seth Tibbott: I grew up in Washington, D.C., went resource consumption benefits, that people should be crazy enough to market such a product. Now we still
to college in Ohio and ended up living at a struggling aware of when they examine their eating habits?
get some funny ones (Jay Leno just had a great funny
outdoor education center in Cherry Grove, Oregon, in ST: There are three main reasons people eat vegetarian piece with Jesse James-- Sandra Bullock’s husband--
1980. I thought that if I started a business, I could skim diets:
and Stephen Colbert has talked Tofurky on his show),
off enough money to support the outdoor education Health-- It has been well established that a plant-based but we also get serious treatment from places like Fox
center work. Little did I know that it would take thirty diet has health benefits from lower cholesterol and can- News Business Report and Food Channel’s Unwrapped
years to attain a scale of business to even come close to cer rates to longer life spans.
and History Channel’s Modern Mar-
this goal. This included about 20 years of living in tipis Environmental-- Animals are basi-
vels. So people are looking beyond
and treehouses on $300 per month.
cally a protein machine in reverse.
the joke and seeing Tofurky as a seri-
Take five pounds of grains,
ous product as well.
for instance, and dump them
into the hopper of the “turkey
VV: Can you talk about some of
machine” and you will get
Turtle Island Foods environmen-
one pound of turkey meat.
tal practices-- what the company is
On the other hand, take half a
doing, and why this is important to
pound of grain and put it into
GE Dual Fuel Range
the hopper of the “tofurky
ST: Our biggest environmental im-
Seth Tibbotts in 1980 at the
Up to $500 Visa®
Model # C2S980
machine” and you will get
pact is making delicious meat alterna-
one pound of Tofurky. As
tives because animal production ac-
- bas range on top,
and Save up to
the planet grows in population, it is more and counts for 18% of greenhouse gases (vs. 11% for all
electric oven on bottom
$200 on selected - Baking Drawer oﬀers
more apparent that meat is an unsustainable forms of transportation). Beyond that, we use recycled
means of feeding people.
paperboard on all packaging and sales material, are
additional cooking space
Ethics-- If people were to see inside factory part of the Page Blue Sky Program-- which means all
when you need it most
farms and how most of our meat is raised these of our energy is
days, they would be horrified. Animal abuse is from sustainable
18,000 BTU Burner
standard operating procedure in most of these sources, we ship
- Extra-large oven capacity
via train now to
the east coast
which is 3x more
Serving Vernonia since 1956
Quick, Careful and
a little eccentric (you lived in tree houses for trucking. We
eight years, right?). How do you think your also donate prod-
with free haul-away
personality has affected your business suc- ucts and thou-
sands of dollars
Monday - Saturday
ST: I think that the evolution of a product line to
non-profits Turtle Island Foods, makers of
9:00am - 6:00pm
like Tofurky had to come from someone with a who are fighting Tofurky, is a multimillion dollar
a year business.
512 SE Baseline HILLSBORO 503-648-2813
sense of humor who was not afraid to let their the good fight.
The weather outside is frightful...
...your new GE Range is delightful