Interview with Tofurky founder Seth Tibbot
Tofurky launched their sandwich range in the UK last week at Wholefoods. If you haven't yet, check out my review of the whole range here. Find out more about Tofurky and their products here.
The Interview with Seth took place at Wholefoods South Kensington.
Philipp from Exceedingly vegAn:
Hello Seth, thank you so much for taking the time for this interview! You've always been one of my heroes! My first question is How long have you been vegan for?
I turned vegetarian in 1972 and a couple of years later I became what was then called as a ‘pure vegetarian’, that’s what we call a vegan today. Then for the next 30 something years I would go back and forth but I was mostly vegan for most of the time. And finally 5 years ago I went totally vegan and not gonna do anything else for the rest of my life.
EXCEEDINGLY VEGAN: :
So you are basically one of THE pioneers of the vegetarian and vegan movement. How did it feel to be one of the first?
SETH TIBBOT (ST):
Well, it was always very exciting. The first 9 years I was very poor but I was living the dream. In 9 years my take home pay was $31000 in total, so $300 a month was what I was living on! But it was not hardship. It felt exciting to me because I was working, I was supporting myself, even in a very frugal way. And I was building something I believed in. It’s always been a mission to me. I started the business to be part of a change I thought I wanted to see happening in society. Our business is still mission-based. Although now after being in business all these years I also understand the need for profits to reinvest in growth, make things better and also be a better employer to our workers. So I learned a lot but it’s still our mission to bring plant-based foods to the world and make them affordable. Also, to help people make sustainable and enduring changes.
I was very excited to be one of the first to try the new vegan range by Tofurky!
So far they launched in Wholefoods UK, but Tofurky have great expansion plans.
What were your reasons to become vegetarian and vegan back then?
In 1972 I read a book by Frances Moore Lappé, ‘Diet for a Small Planet’. She was the first one to point out to me how inefficient it was to feed all of these grain to animals instead of feedings these grains straight to people. As an environmentalist it made a lot of sense to me. So after reading that book I became vegetarian.
What was the reason for you to start Tofurky?
It was American thanksgiving in the nineties. We started in the eighties and mainly specialised in tofu and tempeh but by 1995 we were still a small company. I wasn’t able to pay very good wages, didn’t have good benefits for myself or my workers so I was really still struggling. And I had been through so many Thanksgivings without turkey. And while others had this big fancy meal, for vegetarians it was like ‘here’s your salad and potatoes or whatever side dishes’. I wanted to bring the vegetarians or meat reducers back into the holidays and give them something to eat, so that’s when Tofurky was born.
You have launched your vegan sandwich line in Wholefoods in the UK now. What was the reason to launch in the UK and not the US?
Just like in 1995 I saw that there was this gap in the market. Back then there was this underserved group of people in the US that had nothing to eat at Thanksgiving. The sandwich market in the UK looked like the same thing to me. You guys have plenty of sandwiches but most of them all contain meat-, cheese- or egg- based animal proteins. In terms of plant-based proteins you have a bit of falafel, hummus or all vegetable sandwiches but they are all sort of lacking in protein and plant-based meats. So we wanted to bring these type of sandwiches to the UK because we see the UK grab and go market is underserving vegans, vegetarians but also meat reducers. What we are tying to offer is high-protein sandwiches that are vegan. Like this chick’n and sweetcorn sandwich I am eating right now has 23g or plant protein per pack! That’s huge.
What’s special about your sandwiches?
They are the first sandwiches in the UK that are really focused on having plant-based protein and plant-based meats. Last year we went to the Lunch! show in Excel and we brought 200 vegan sandwiches and people went wild for them! And then we did an online poll to ask if people wanted to buy them. People could choose from 3 plant-meat based sandwiches and 3 of the leading vegan sandwiches and we asked people to rate them. We thought if we got like 500 or 1000 responses we would be lucky and it would be significant enough for us to go to a buyer and say ‘hey, there is a need for them’. Well, within 2 weeks we got 6500 responses! People were just crazy for them. And the Tofurky sandwiches finished 1, 2 and 3 in this poll! From there we said let’s find a sandwich maker (Soho Sandwiches in London) and they are now doing all the sandwiches, delivering them into all the stores and doing a great job.
EV: What do you say to vegans who say ‘you are vegan, why would you need meat replacements?’
ST: I would say great, you don’t need to have your tofu to taste like meat or you don’t want your vegetables to taste like meat, you are fine. But who I am talking to is a large part of the population who don’t eat meat for diet, for the treatment of animals or environmental factors. Yet they still like the taste and the texture of meat. I am one of those. I was raised on meat and I ate hamburgers in high school every day before I became vegetarian in college. There are many different types of vegans and people and we are selling to people that still want to the taste and familiarity of meat that they grew up with or are familiar with.
What do you say to vegans who say ‘you are vegan, why would you need meat replacements?’
I would say great, you don’t need to have your tofu to taste like meat or you don’t want your vegetables to taste like meat, you are fine. But who I am talking to is a large part of the population who don’t eat meat for diet, for the treatment of animals or environmental factors. Yet they still like the taste and the texture of meat. I am one of those. I was raised on meat and I ate hamburgers in high school every day before I became vegetarian in college. There are many different types of vegans and people and we are selling to people that still want to the taste and familiarity of meat that they grew up with or are familiar with.
What are you plans for the future in the UK
We like to see our sandwiches expand all over the UK. We are starting out in Wholefoods and we are going to As Nature Intended, Planet organic and independent stores. But our poll showed where people wanted them are Sainsbury’s and Tesco, the big supermarkets. So our mission is to bring plant-based foods and plant-based proteins to the masses and get people off meat because it’s killing the planet. There isn’t one major eco system that’s not in decline and so much of that decline is from animal agriculture. We gotta go way beyond to the base consumer with our Tofurky sandwiches and reach out and show people they don’t have to eat meat to be healthy.
It was so much fun talking to Seth about his revolutionary business Tofurky and his perseverance and belief in his mission is an inspiration.
How do those sandwiches compare to meat sandwiches?
So first of all you look at the protein and they have the same or more protein than meat sandwiches. And as I pointed out 23g of protein per pack for the Chick’n and sweetcorn (editors note: the Chipotle Chick'n has even 27g per pack!). Protein is an important part of a healthy diet for people. I think sometimes people stop being vegans and vegetarians because they feel like they don’t get enough protein. Also in terms of fat, saturated fat and fibre these sandwiches have a lot going for them nutritionally that other sandwiches don’t. But particularly important for us is the protein content and the taste, because taste is king!
Are your sandwiches non GMO and organic?
They are all non GMO. Every Tofurky product is based on organic soya protein. We don’t use soy protein powders, isolates, or concentrates. We base it on natural, lightly processed products like tofu and tempeh.
Are they form sustainable sources?
They are. They are all organic. We have been buying our soya from a small farmer in Texas for years and years.
What advice would you give to other vegan businesses?
I would say just keep turning the key every morning and hang in there. I knew nothing about business when I first started this. I didn’t study business in college, I was a school teacher. I would say don’t be afraid of your daft ideas either. Sometimes the idea that sounds the craziest to people is the the one nobody is working on and nobody has thought about. Just persevere and even if you don’t know anything about business just pay attention and work on your dream every single day. You get the dream you prepare for. And I want to thank all the great vegan businesses I see in England and London and say ‘well done’. You are really one of the cutting edge countries in the world that’s growing vegan ideas, in some ways even faster than the states. I am so impressed what the vegans have accomplished particularly in London.
Thank you so much of your time, it was an absolute pleasure!
Credit: Interview and transcription: Philipp Ertl, Photos: Philipp Ertl