Sunday, March 06, 2005

One Word: 'Vegetables'

A career in business can follow a strange path. This one includes The Age of Aquarius, tree houses, and turkeys:

Like Spam, Chia Pets and The Clapper, Oregon-made Tofurky has registered fast-rising sales in recent years despite a name that's widely mocked in popular culture.

But Turtle Island Foods Inc., the Hood River company that makes Tofurky and a line of other "meat alternatives," faces serious business questions these days. Can it grow big enough fast enough to survive against larger and better financed rivals? And if so, is the company's enigmatic founder, Seth Tibbott, the right person to lead the way?

The company's growth in the past decade has been startling.

Turtle Island's sales of its signature product, an imitation turkey intended to give vegetarians something to eat at Thanksgiving, grew from 500 units in 1995 to 150,000 last year. The company now also sells a range of products under the Tofurky brand, from deli slices to meatless sausages to a vegetarian jerky called Tofurky Jurky.

In 2004, it recorded the nation's fastest growth in the meat substitute category, according to one industry tracker. A significant reason, Tibbott readily admits, is a catchy product name.

....Tibbott acknowledges the company is at a crossroads, and admits that he wonders whether he is the best person to take Turtle Island to its next stage.

"I'm assessing what's next," he said. "As the needs for a company grows, the founders aren't always the ones to take things to fruition."

....There's no question that Tibbott was the right person to start Turtle Island Foods. He combines an environmentalist's sensibility with a wry, almost self-mocking sense of humor.

He founded the company in 1980, selling tempeh to restaurants, natural food stores and natural food distributors. Tempeh, made from fermented soy beans, is popular in Indonesia and other parts of South Asia, and with some vegetarians in this country.

Tibbott first worked in a Forest Grove food co-op, making tempeh part time. Then he moved his operation to an abandoned schoolhouse in Husum, Wash., about 10 miles north of Hood River.

While in Husum, he said, he made about $3,000 annually and lived — for seven years — in a tree house on land he rented for $25 a month. He said he moved Turtle Island Foods to Hood River in 1992 after tempeh production outgrew the schoolhouse.

It's the resume of an earnest hippie. But ask Tibbott about Tofurky, and his humor comes through.

"At holidays, being a vegetarian was this lonely thing," he said. "The meat eaters were having a great time, gnawing on drumsticks and everything. And here was the little vegetarian, with his peas and salad."

In 1995, he and Hans Wrobel, owner of Higher Taste, a Portland company that produces vegetarian sandwiches and burritos, came up with a stuffed tofu loaf for holiday meals.

Tofu by itself, though, didn't have a meaty texture and didn't freeze well. So Tibbott added a wheat gluten, called seitan, to the mix and came up with the recipe for Tofurky.

"When I met him, he was this natural tempeh manufacturer, very down to earth and all that," Wrobel said.

"He's come a long way, from living in a tree house to running a multimillion dollar factory. I think he's surprised himself."

Turtle Island recorded about $5 million in sales last year, Tibbott said, up 42 percent from 2003.

....Mark Moore, Turtle Island's vice president of sales, said Tibbott has uncanny business skills.
"He's always dead on in his packaging and product decisions," Moore said. "A lot of competitors are very numbers driven, run by MBA people. A lot of times they're cut off from what the market really wants."

But Tibbott, although he said he has a natural affinity for numbers and the ability to quickly make sound business decisions, knows that his skills and vegetarian sensibility may not ultimately be enough.

"It's like a cosmic goof that I'm here doing this business at all," he said. "In college, we used to laugh at the business majors. Now I'd kill to take one of those classes."

No comments: