In April of 1951 the #1 Billboard hit was How High the Moon by Les Paul and Mary Ford. President Truman and the US military were conducting nuclear weapons testing, sigh. Meanwhile, in fashion, women were sporting the popular "New Look" by Christian Dior and men were beginning to follow a new "Teddy Boy" trend with greased-back hair, narrow trousers and velvet-collared jackets, but I digress.
This time would also prove to be extremely auspicious for what’s known today as The Vegan Movement.
Seth Tibbott, plant-based food pioneer and founder of the famous Tofurky brand was born on Friday, April 20, 1951, in Washington DC.
Born to two rather mature parents; mom 39 and dad 56. His mother was an amazing woman, very positive, a great cook, and a loving person who had a warm trademark smile. His father, who had dropped out of college to support his family, worked for the Federal Maritime Commission and was also a creative storyteller, musician, and artist who liked to write and make up words while encouraging Seth to do the same.
Seth’s parents both worked for the Federal Government, and there was little to no evidence of any entrepreneurship running in the family. Regardless, Seth and his brother Bob caught the entrepreneurship bug at an early age. They were close companions with a paper route, a small crabbing business, and would put on small carnivals for the local kids to earn a few extra bucks.
As a young man, Seth entered college as an elementary education major. He and his friends dismissed business majors as members of the status quo.
“Business was not the place that people working for social change of any kind gravitated to.”
Seth became a vegetarian in 1972. In 1975 he learned the meaning of veganism while reading about Stephen Gaskin’s Farm in Summertown, TN. For the next 37 years, he would go back and forth, as a flexo vegan, as it was called back then. Fast forward to 2012 after visiting the Farm Sanctuary in Watkins Glen and working with celebrated activist, Lisa Shapiro, he became the vegan he is today.
The word “vegan” wasn’t really used in the ’70s. If you were the kind of vegetarian who didn’t eat dairy or eggs, you were called a “pure vegetarian.” Seth survived on a lot of pressure cooked soybeans and tortillas for that first year and other recipes from the Farm Vegetarian Cookbook.
His grandfather, Seth Lundquist, a very cool man who was a writer and avid reader, was intrigued by the vegetarian diets of eastern religions. Seth’s parents were supportive but like most were worried he wouldn’t get enough protein.
“Don’t worry” I told them, “I’m going to fill up on soybeans!”
Back then there was no real animal rights movement. PeTA and Farm Animal Rights Movement (FARM) hadn’t been established yet and the thousands of books, millions of videos, and piles of information on how animals are mistreated, exploited, and slaughtered did not exist. The ASPCA existed but was limited in scope. Although… misinformation was already rearing its ugly head…Seth remembers reading a book titled Living Lightly that claimed, “Cheese and milk are ok to eat because the animals give us these foods painlessly.”
As a vegetarian/flexo vegan, Seth was always on the lookout for a Thanksgiving Turkey alternative. But back then the plant-based product industry wasn’t even 1% of what it is today. “We-are-so, totally spoiled,” Seth commented. So despite his search, he couldn’t find anything that satisfied his need.
Back then he spent many Thanksgivings with his “naturalist” friends in a small cabin in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon. Together they made several attempts at developing a successful holiday dinner replacement. A couple of their most epic fails were a collapsed stuffed pumpkin and a gluten roast you couldn’t cut with a chainsaw, amongst others.
Research and Development
In 1995, with no formal business training, Seth teamed up with his friends Hans and Rhonda Wrobel who created a stuffed tofu roast and gravy. Seth himself added 8 tempeh drumettes and the now famous portmanteau, Tofurky. With the help of Graciela Pulido and her crew in their first year, they sold 818 Tofurky Roasts…and so began, what is now a legacy.
“I have so many people to thank, it would take all day to list them.”
Flanked with a crackerjack team – Mark Machlis, Karen Goodwin, and his wife, Sue, the first three years were experimental, they tested out three very different recipes for the now-famous Tofurky Roast.
The first one was 100% tofu, very good! But it did not freeze very well. They conducted surveys by sending out stamped postcards with questions in every box- resulting in a lot of customer feedback. The second year they tried baked tofu with stuffing sold separately. This was an improvement but lacked texture when defrosted. In the third year, they reduced the size of the roast, added seitan to the tofu, and ultimately created the popular roasts that Tofurky sells to this day.
Over 6 Million Served Since 1995
“The Tofurky brand was a breakout brand for both the AR movement and veganism in the 1990s. It went deep into the culture where no brands had gone before. Thanksgiving is the day American’s gather with their families and talk about food. Around millions of tables, Tofurky served as a conversation starter about turkeys and other farmed animals. The countless TV stories about Tofurky reached into the consciousness of even more people, creating a viral effect at a time before social media. The brand has helped normalize veganism and made people question their animal eating ways.” ~ Seth
When asked to describe the major benchmarks in the Tofurky story that are responsible for where he is today, Seth responded with – convincing the White Salmon, WA school board to take a chance on him and rent him the abandoned Husum, WA elementary school for $150/month. His brother loaning him $5,000 – a runway to learn how the food business worked by making tempeh for the next 15 years. In 1992, moving the business to Hood River, OR., a bigger town next to the interstate trucking lanes. Finally last but certainly not least, marrying his wife Sue, having her support, and later bringing her son Jaime Athos into the business which he now runs.
In our interview, Seth shared that he has no regrets. His eye was always on the prize…not necessarily being a captain of industry but the fun of it. “This always attracted the right kind of people to our project.” He admits that growing the business wasn’t a cakewalk but the joy is what he remembers most.
At the very beginning during what he likes to call the “Tempeh years,” he does remember the inner struggles and the constant existential questions that would randomly surface “What am I doing with my life?” “What’s it going to look like for me as an elder with no savings?” and “Am I throwing away my good years?”
Tofurky was literally inventing a new category and filling a white space in the food market. This was a blessing and a curse. With literally no competition, yet no proof of concept either. There were no references to cite on how big the sales were going to be or how much to produce. Their trademark roast was predominantly a holiday market item with a short retail window. Seth remembers the stress of being tasked with some definitive make or break supply and demand decisions.
Nowadays Tofurky is a solid brand. In addition to their trademark Holiday Roast, they now also offer a variety of deli slices, tempeh, holiday ham, burgers, hotdogs, sausages, chick’n, pizzas, ground beef, quiche, hot pockets, prepared sandwiches, cream cheeses, and a new line of cheese shreds under a subsidiary brand Moocho. Whew!
SPOILER ALERT – coming soon will be an exciting line of algae-based products. We can’t wait to see what this is all about! Quality control requires constant management and it hasn’t always panned out. At one point they market tested cheesecake, but with the company having such high standards, Tofurky no longer offers them. As the US market demand grows exponentially for plant-based food items they are focusing on meeting that demand but also distribute to over twenty countries around the world.
As an industry trailblazer, Seth believes business is a marathon, not a sprint. He advises any young budding entrepreneurs to always keep your mission, passion, and enthusiasm alive. He reminds us of these two attributes to keep us going for the long haul, even when the money is not there. 1. Turning the key every morning is the best path to success – keep going. 2. Every day you stay in the game you acquire more wisdom than the day before and your pathway to success widens.
Seth’s Top Ten Principles of Sustainability, Stability, Lucrativeness, and Compassion:
- Remember your mission
- Be innovative, even a little crazy
- Be kind
- Always look for the win/win
- Do every job you ask people to do so you can gain empathy
- Look for the “white space” in the market where there are unmet needs
- Secure just enough money but not too much
- Infuse your business and marketing with a good sense of humor
- Have confidence in your dream
- Don’t take yourself too seriously
“Hold onto your dreams. The dreams of youth are the purest, least contaminated dreams you will ever have. Remember them.”
As a newly published author, he wants to share what he realized was a rare teachable business story. Growing a family run, independent business, now selling equity outside the family. His book, In Search of the Wild Tofurky is engaging, funny, and a little crazy at times. It documents Seth – a cosmic goof, and how he found a way to build a dream from the ground up while becoming less stupid about business as he plodded his way along.
“I hope that this book entertains but also inspires other goofs who have a good idea, a sense of mission, and humor.”
Now 70 years old and semi-retired, Seth remains as Tofurky’s brand ambassador and in great health. He speaks of his many friends that are either struggling with weight issues, cholesterol, blood pressure, and other diet-related problems.
“It feels pretty damned good to be eating well, minimizing my impact on the planet, and overtly doing no harm to the animals who travel with us.”
He maintains a vital network of contacts and enjoys giving talks about not only Tofurky but the past, present, and future of the meat-free movement. He is also head cheerleader for the advancement of veganism through commercial startups and worthy nonprofits who are working towards a meat-free world. He believes our most profound challenge is to communicate with the 98% of people on this planet who are still eating animals without sounding superior, condescending, or pretentious. His best advice is to listen respectfully and find the most compassionate, honest, and forthright way to speak your truth.
As an advisor to Matthew Glover and his new venture, VFC (“Vegan Fried Chick’n) soon to be sold in the USA, Seth acknowledges Mathew as an activist first and a food producer second. This is putting the animals front and center in his marketing, which Seth considers both courageous and amazing.
As a matter of fact, tens of thousands have flocked to hear Seth speak on just about every aspect of the animal rights movement. He has graced the stages of the Animal Law Conference, Veganmania, AR National Conferences, Portland Vegfest, Adelaide Veg Fest, New Delhi Vegan Conference, World Tempeh Symposium in Bali among many others.
Parting Words to Live By
“Today every major ecosystem on earth is in decline. Many of these ecosystems, like the Amazon rainforest to name one, are being destroyed to support land in order to grow soybeans for beef cattle. Feeding soybeans directly to people is a gain of efficiency of 15x. We operate under the illusion that we have infinite resources of land, air, and water but we don’t. Veganism is one of the main pillars to building a more sustainable, efficient future where there is plenty of food for the soon to be 10 billion fellow travelers on Sunship Earth. I think we are still in the early days of one of the biggest pivots that the earth has ever made. Vegan foods will continue their march forward to becoming the dominant paradigm in this country. Animal-based proteins are very entrenched in US society and won’t disappear completely any time soon. I do feel like they will follow the path of the tobacco industry which has seen cigarette smoking drop from 42% of Americans in 1960 to 14% today. In the next 50 years as plant-based vegan foods improve in taste and texture, they will have a market share of around 70%. Eventually, in perhaps 100 years, animal-based foods will drop further leading to the demise of my beloved Happy Cow app and the rise of a “Where’s the Beef” app that will direct the maybe 5% of the US population to the few remaining restaurants where they can still find animal-based meats. The diehard carnivores will also need to order special meals when they fly on rockets to the moon on holiday.”
“My advice to our community…
Be more inclusive and tolerant of slightly different viewpoints. Life’s too short not to love everybody and it’s far too long to hate.”