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The meat and potatoes of a veggie-biz

October 8, 2005

Seth Tibbott, founder of Turtle Island Foods, once had a meat and potatoes kind of life.

His dad was a Wash. D.C. government worker. His mother was his dad’s secretary.

He was the kind of kid who hated veggies.

“Peanut butter and jelly was a mainstay,” he smiles.

He went to college at 18. Graduated at 22.

“It was a Leave it to Beaver kind of childhood,” he says.

And then, in 1973, he met the soybean.

Everything the Outdoor School teacher and two-year vegetarian knew changed.

That little legume dragged him into a life of tumultousness, of volatility.

Because of that bean, he slept in a treehouse near Husum for 10 years, subsisting off $3,000.

Because of the soybean, he traveled to a Tennessee commune as a 20-something, to explore its culinary uses with other hippies for weeks. And, because of that bean — and his dedication to it — he now operates one of the most profitable privately owned vegetarian meat product plants in the nation: Turtle Island Foods.

Of course, you probably know the company by its most famous product, Tofurky, the meatless turkey loaf that has brought herbivores and carnivores to the same Thanksgiving table for the last decade.

Tofurky is the Turtle Island foods product that pops up in the lines and conversations of television: Cameron Diaz described it on Letterman a few years ago and, Tibbott’s favorite, the “X Files” included Tofurky in a vegetarian character’s rant. Tofurky was the answer to a $400 “Jeopardy” question in March of 2001. (Nobody answered it).

Turtle Island sold 150,000 of these soy-based loafs last year, up from less than 500 in the first year — 1995 — Tibbott and Turtle Island put them on the market.

“That was our breakout product,” Tibbott says. “That’s how we met the world.”

Though Tofurky is what keeps the pleasant smile on Tibbott’s face, he does talk about other products.

Down on Sixth Street and Industrial Way, the Turtle Island Foods production plants cooks up enough protein to keep any carnivora nourished.

They’ve got turkey-like deli meat slices in peppered, hickory-smoked or regular.

PETA Awards —

But the product that just earned the quirky company a PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) Golden Bun Award for the Best Veggie Sausage was Tofurky’s Sweet Italian Sausage Kielbasa and Beer Brats.

If the Tofurky Roast brought carnivoras and herbivoras to the same Thanksgiving table, these brats and sausages are bringing both groups to the same outdoor grill.

“All so ‘meaty’ they’ll fool even the most diehard carnivore,” wrote Veronica Van Hof, a PETA spokeswoman.

Sales in both the Italian Sausage and Kielbasa were up more than 400 percent compared to the previous year, according to SPINS, a company tracking the economic trends of the meat-substitute industry.

Turtle Island Foods also won second last month in PETA’s “Best Veggie Cold Cuts” for its Tofurky Slices.

When Tibbott learns of these awards, he expresses only slight satisfaction, like that wrought from learning tomorrow will again be a sunny day.

Kraft, Kellogg’s, tofurky? —

It’s not that he isn’t happy about it — he is.

It’s that this attention and last year’s booming sales have placed this life-long hippie square in the sights of some of the country’s biggest food producers, like Kraft, which owns Boca Burger, Conegra, which owns Light Life and Kellogg’s, which owns Morningstar Farms Organic.

Last year, Turtle Island sold more than $4.5 million worth products, about half as much as Kraft’s Boca Burger and nearly $2 million more than Kellogg’s Morningstar Farms Organic.

Turtle Island was sixth among 2004’s top 10 natural food producers in sales. More importantly, it was the fastest growing natural food producer in 2004, according to SPINS.

Turtle Island achieved this despite its decision to stick with the traditional and more expensive method of cooking soy products, when other companies, says Tibbott, began using the chemical Hexane to extract the protein from the soy beans.

“We feel like we’re holding the flag for more natural foods,” he says.

It’s an awkward place for the 54-year-old, father of a 12-year-old to be.

But he intends to survive there with a basic crede:

“Mostly it’s just taste and texture,” he says. “If you have the greatest marketing campaign in the world and if people don’t like the taste of it they won’t eat it.”

Back to the roots —

He was a college junior at Ohio’s Whittenburg College when he learned from an Environmental Studies class that it takes 16 pounds of grain to produce one pound of meat.

He became a vegetarian immediately.

“That point resonated with me as a naturalist,” he says. “It was really environemental reasons and then all the others (health and compassion for animals) fell into place.”

At first, he practiced what he calls “vanilla wafer vegetarianism.” That is eating lots of carbs, like spaghetti, bread, pizza.

“My mom was always on me about getting enough protein,” he says.

So in 1977, a few years after graduating from college, he visited “The Farm,” the Tennessee-based commune of 1,700 soy hippies.

“That led me to the soy bean,” he says. “In the whole culture, soy foods and awareness of soy foods came from there. Some of the biggest soy businesses today had their roots in The Farm.”

The makers of Silk and Light Life are just two of the examples he rattles off.

Tempeh, an Indonesian method of cooking fermented soy beans, was the form in which Tibbottt initially found interest.

He began experiementing with it as a way to appease his mother’s urging about protein.

He had been using his teacher’s certificate as an outdoor school teacher in Portland at the time.

But then, when he was 29, the federal money that funded the school for which he worked dried up.

Tibbott was unemployed.

So, he took $2,500 he had saved and rented nighttime space in the commercial kitchen of Hope Coop.

He’d cook 100 pounds of Tempeh in a 4 p.m. to midnight shift.

“My vision was well some of these foods were pretty esoteric, like granola and yogurt. The only place you could get those was in a natural foods shop. I thought, ‘Well, from the roots of esoterism flowers banality.”

In 1982, he decided he didn’t want to live in the city any longer but he still wanted to cook Tempeh. He moved to Trout Lake, where he built and lived in a treehouse. There, he found the perfect kitchen in a Husum school that a fledgling logging industry had left vacant for a decade.

“They said: ‘How much can you afford?’” Tibbottt recalls. “And I think I said ‘I can afford $160 a month.’ And they said I could take it.”

The kitchen was perfect for Tibbottt’s purpose. It offered him 1,000 square feet of operating room. And he didn’t have to share the space with anybody.

In that once-abandoned kitchen, Turtle Island Foods grew from a food producer that supplied the most esoteric of natural food stores to stores that might have been in the yellow pages.

“We started using more than our share of the water there,” Tibbottt says. “People would call us up and say ‘Can you please not clean your pots right now. We gotta take a shower.’”

It had been 10 years at that point. And Tibbottt decided it was time to move on. He found 4,500 square feet of space on Sixth Street and Industrial Way in Hood River.

The plant bears striking resemblence to the one in which Lavergne and Shirley worked in that 1970s television sitcom.

Steam billows from metallic engines under dim fluorescent lights. Assembly line workers, with hairnets and gloves load Kielbasa and Brats onto a rack.

A mini-grain elevator rotates fermented soy beans.

It’s been going on for more than a decade in downtown Hood River.

“And still,” Tibbottt says, “We’re the best kept secret in town.”

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