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.