Founder Seth Tibbott moves his vegetarian empire to the next generation.
BY MATT WERBACH
Above: Jaime Athos (left) and his stepfather, Seth Tibbott, stand in front of the new Turtle Island Foods production facility, which will feature a green roof and solar panels when it opens in 2013.
Below: The new Tofurky food production building will have an electric car charging station and several preferred parking spots for hybrid and low emissions vehicles.
// Photos by Sierra Breshears
There was no way Seth Tibbott could have known how far his original $2,500 business investment would take him. He couldn’t have foreseen the large company headquarters in the old Diamond Fruit Cannery in Hood River. He certainly couldn’t have imagined his operation expanding into a brand new LEED-certified building on the shore of the Columbia. Television appearances on America’s most popular networks and shows were laughably implausible.
Tibbott did know how to find a niche in the business world. As an environmentally conscientious vegan, his lifestyle was not the most popular during the Reagan administration. Being different wasn’t a problem; it was a financial opportunity. Today the independent, family-owned company he started in his home kitchen is once again heading into unchartered waters, but the past is acting as the guide for the future. As Tibbott begins to loosen his grip on the tiller steering his life’s work, his stepson, Jaime Athos, prepares to take the helm.
Turtle Island Foods, the makers of Tofurky and many other vegan products, began in Forest Grove at the Hope Co-Op Cafe in 1980. A couple years later, Tibbott moved into a tree house in Husum, Wash., and continued to hone his tempeh-making skills. This fermented-soybean food, which originated in Indonesia, wasn’t the most obvious stroke of product-development genius at the time, but Tibbott has always relied on instinct and intuition over any kind of formal business education.
“In my personal life I was vegan, but they called it ‘pure vegetarian,’ and I was messing around with soybeans to get my protein,” Tibbott says. “I like tofu but sort of fell in love with tempeh and saw that no one was making it.” Over the course of the past 32 years, Tibbott, his family and his company, which now employs about 80 people, have built Turtle Island Foods into an entity that competes with the world’s largest food producers. The company’s gross revenues exceeded $20 million in the past year, and since the beginning they have insisted on using whole, largely organic and non-GMO ingredients.
Tibbott and his company have battled the likes of Kellogg’s, ConAgra and Kraft with increasing frequency in recent years as the larger companies compete for their share of the growing vegetarian and vegan market. One of the key factors in their ability to remain in the fight during the ongoing David versus Goliath-style battle is the inextricable welding of Tibbott’s personality and style to the Turtle Island brand. The founder is gregarious, quirky and quick, with an insightful, witty reply to almost any question. The compelling, intertwined life story and company story of Tibbott and Tofurky has been featured on Oprah, Jeopardy, Fox News and many other programs. Beyond the millions of dollars in free advertising, these appearances and the buzz around Tofurky have helped the company to establish a presence where it often requires big money to buy in.
“In some ways, as a social phenomenon, the idea of Tofurky is bigger than the actual product and the company,” Athos says.
The company has done a lot to capitalize on the free publicity. The name, website and even the packaging reflect Tibbott’s lighthearted outlook. “I see the whimsy and playfulness that Seth brings to the picture as being so fundamental to the company,” Athos says. The unique narrative draws curious consumers and those who enjoy knowing the face behind their food. The 38-year-old successor doesn’t plan to rebuild himself in the founder’s image, though. Instead, he will allow Tibbott’s story and the company’s well-established identity to remain, while Athos works from his methodical, scientific background to continue to grow the business.
Above: Tofurky deli slices contain no MSG or nitrates.
Below: Tempeh is made with whole soybeans.
//Photos by Sierra Breshears
Athos joined the company full time in 2005, though he collected his first paycheck from Turtle Island in 1992 while working summers during his undergrad study of fish biology at the University of Washington. He stayed at the University for his Ph.D. in the neurobiology and behavior fields, focusing mainly on learning and memory. Athos worked for about a year as a postdoctoral scientist at the school before taking a position with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, where he served as a visiting scientist at the Northwest Fisheries Science Center for more than a year. It may not read like the typical resume of a food company’s executive vice president, but atypical is the norm for Tofurky.
Tibbott graduated from Wittenberg University in Ohio in 1974. He studied education and worked in outdoor education before turning to the tempeh business. When he started the company, he was the only employee, and he would hand-deliver samples to grocers. Now, at 61, he welcomes the change and the help Athos brings.
“I think Jaime’s skill set is perfect for where the company is now,” Tibbott says. The business is looking to commission its first production line in a new 33,000-square-foot facility in January 2013. The new building will seek LEED platinum certification, and it’s just a stone’s throw from the current operation on the Hood River waterfront. The expansion means more employees, and Athos sees a need for more internal infrastructure. That’s one place his systemic, analytical background may serve the company well.
Athos knows that the new building and additional employees are premised on the belief that their output and profits will grow. He has been working to build management structure and to put leaders in positions to help, not only with the expansion but also with the transition at the top of the company. “Having a good team — a good, solid team under me — that has definitely been one of the things I’ve worked on,” Athos says.
Product development has been a strength for Turtle Island since its inception. Tibbott has relied on creativity and a nose for the holes in the market. “Tofurky was really the stroke that changed the course for us,” Tibbott says. “I think new products are as much art as they are science.” Both men are consumers of their own products and of their competitors’ foods. Tibbott trusted his preference for the taste and texture of tempeh over tofu more than 30 years ago, and he continues to rely on his intuition today as they innovate products like their deli slices, sausages and frozen pizzas. He is sensitive to spicy foods, so they’ve steered clear of anything with too much kick, even in their pizza line. “Not only do I not like spicy things, but the data backs me up there,” Tibbott says. It’s just one example of his tastes and opinions matching that of his consumers.
Athos regularly brings home samples of potential new products for his wife, Rachel, and their two young sons, Max and James, but his scientific education lends itself to a different way of looking at Tofurky’s product development. Athos gets excited talking about the heat given off during the soy- fermentation process, and according to Tibbott, Athos has a gift for understanding numbers, systems and the biology and chemistry of their business, such as the science of gluten. It’s these talents, rather than decades of honed instinct, that will shape the way the company manufactures new products in the coming years.
“I’m probably even more aggressive about innovating new products,” Athos says, but he also understands that when it comes to food, science has its limits. “Anything with a sensory experience is subjective,” he adds.
Above: The majority of Turtle Island’s employees work in production. Athos and Tibbott plan to increase production manpower as the company grows.
Below: Tibbott displays Tofurky’s meatless sausages, which are made with outdoor grilling in mind. They are designed to cook so that they do not fall apart on the grill.
//Photos by Sierra Breshears
Athos is not worried about taking risks, but he does not want to endanger the financial health of the company either. To capitalize on the risks he takes, he plans to rely on his past experience as a scientist, where he has already learned to deal with defeat. He believes he knows how to structure product development so that the company can improve, even when things don’t work out. “You can actually learn something from that failure, and the next one has a better likelihood of success,” Athos says.
Turtle Island is expanding their frozen-food line, which will mean even more head-to-head battles with the Goliath food companies. Currently, Tofurky offers three types of frozen pizzas, which have met with quick success as the No. 2 brand of pizza in the natural food channel. The freezer section of a grocery store is often far larger and more competitive than the refrigerated section, where Turtle Island has already staked their claim. Athos is hoping their loyal customers will see the name and recognize the quality of the brand. “I’d like to think they’re going to follow us wherever we go with these new products,” he says.
Tibbott has considered selling before, and he credits Athos with keeping him interested and with helping the company move forward as an independent entity. With Tibbott’s marketable story tied tightly to the identity of the brand, Athos has focused his efforts on setting up a systemic internal structure with the staff and in the product- development chain to help sustain the company once the founder moves on. For now, they both share a competitiveness that keeps them motivated.
“I like the thought of taking on these big -name companies with billions of dollars of assets behind them and beating them at that game,” Athos says.
“Plus, it’s more fun to be David than Goliath,” adds Tibbott. “Who wants to be Goliath? There’s no fun in that.”
Matt Werbach is a journalist based in Hood River. He can be reached at [email protected].