Tofurky balances business with mission

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HOOD RIVER – Tofurky is like any other business in the Columbia Gorge. It struggles to find good people, to keep employees and grow its business.

But there is something different about Tofurky, the plant-based food maker. It is about the mission: People, animals, environment over profits.

Tofurky Chief Executive Officer Jamie Athos says for his company, keeping that mission is more of a priority than making money. The Hood River-based company is still owned by Athos’s family. Its founder Seth Tibbot is his stepfather.

To accomplish their environmental mission, the company looked at its manufacturing facility. When the company leaders built a new facility along the Columbia River, they wanted it to be a sustainable building. The building on Anchor Way has 400 solar panels, a roof-top garden and a rainwater harvesting system. All of that earned the building a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification.

Committed to the environmental mission doesn’t stop at the door – it goes all the way to the trash can. Tofurky composts all its food waste – keeping about 2,750 pounds out of the trash.

Constructing a building is one thing, dealing with people is another.

As a business, Tofurky wants to recruit and retain workers – good workers. Like many businesses in the Columbia Gorge, that can be a challenge.

To do that, Athos said they offer competitive wages, good vacation/days off and a good health plan.

Offer quality benefits isn’t always good for the bottom line and it does take away from the profit because there is a cost associated with it.

But Tofurky’s shareholders are family and what they value is people more than the bottom line – more than making an extra dollar.

“We are all about the people,” Athos said.

Those efforts haven’t gone unnoticed. Tofurky is a Certified B Corporation and has been since 2015. Certified B is like a fair-trade designation, but for businesses. The designation comes from the non-profit B Lab and is given to companies that meet the non-profits standards for social and environmental performance, accountability and transparency. As part of the review, B Lab evaluates how a company treats its employees through compensation, benefit and training.

Tofurky is one of 2,183 B Corporations in the world; one of 95 in Oregon and one of the two B Corporations in the Columbia Gorge.

For the plant-based company, taking care of its employees does go beyond benefits and pay.

Athos said he tries to stay connected to the workers. That is no easy feat since Tofukry continues to grow. It has gone from 20 to 30 employees to nearly 150, making it difficult for Athos to get know everyone. But every month, an employee is named employee of the month and Athos is always there for the announcement and to shake the employee’s hand.

“The CEO shakes their hand,” Athos said, adding that employees know “that we care.”

Commitment to people goes beyond employees. Tofurky is also active in the community. Tofurky Marketing Director Erin Ransom said there are little things the company does in the community such as supporting the library, community movie nights and community scholarships. The company also donates food to homeless shelters, food banks and festivals.

These community-focused charitable efforts are part of a larger giving imitative that generally furthers the company’s mission. To continue protecting the environment, the company website says the company supports groups that protect local watersheds and forests.

Tofurky is a plant-based food company and it looks to protect animals. The company supports animal rescues, animal advocacy groups.

While dedicated to a mission more than their profits, Tofurky’s leaders still want to grow the business, especially when the demand for plant-based food is growing.

Right now, the plant-base food market has grown between 8 and 9 percent, Athos said. This is an upward trend in the grocery industry, where growth is small.

With the in interest in plant-based foods growing, Tofurky is looking beyond the grocery store to reach consumers. Athos said the company is working with the food service industry, to get more of its products in restaurants.

Tofurky has gone international. Now available in the United Kingdom, Germany, Australia, Belgium and Canada. Athos said the brand does well overseas because international consumers are hungry for American culture and Tofurky is very much a part of that.

His company, he explains, isn’t the only brand to benefit from that phenomenon. Many American companies do well on the international scene because of consumers want to experience it.

Those factors make Tofurky attractive to large food companies. Many small plant-based food producers have been purchased by large corporations. But Athos says the goal is to keep Tofurky in the family and keep it true to its mission.

That connection and mission are strong draws. While a student at University of Washington, Athos would come back to the Gorge and work at the family’s business making tempeh, a soy food product. It was a way to make a little money for school.

Athos didn’t think it would be more than that. He completed his doctorate in neuroscience and was planning on being a professor.

Everything was on track to meet that goal. But somehow Tofurky called him home and he is happy.

“It is fulfilling,” he said, explaining there aren’t a lot of jobs that let you grow a business and fulfill a mission.

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