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Transition time

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Articles - September 2012
Monday, August 27, 2012


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Above: Tofurky deli slices contain no MSG or nitrates.
Below: Tempeh is made with whole soybeans.
//Photos by Sierra Breshears
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Athos joined the company full time in 2005, though he collected his first paycheck from Turtle Island in 1992 while working summers during his undergrad study of fish biology at the University of Washington. He stayed at the University for his Ph.D. in the neurobiology and behavior fields, focusing mainly on learning and memory. Athos worked for about a year as a postdoctoral scientist at the school before taking a position with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, where he served as a visiting scientist at the Northwest Fisheries Science Center for more than a year. It may not read like the typical resume of a food company’s executive vice president, but atypical is the norm for Tofurky.

Tibbott graduated from Wittenberg University in Ohio in 1974. He studied education and worked in outdoor education before turning to the tempeh business. When he started the company, he was the only employee, and he would hand-deliver samples to grocers. Now, at 61, he welcomes the change and the help Athos brings.

“I think Jaime’s skill set is perfect for where the company is now,” Tibbott says. The business is looking to commission its first production line in a new 33,000-square-foot facility in January 2013. The new building will seek LEED platinum certification, and it’s just a stone’s throw from the current operation on the Hood River waterfront. The expansion means more employees, and Athos sees a need for more internal infrastructure. That’s one place his systemic, analytical background may serve the company well.

Athos knows that the new building and additional employees are premised on the belief that their output and profits will grow. He has been working to build management structure and to put leaders in positions to help, not only with the expansion but also with the transition at the top of the company. “Having a good team — a good, solid team under me — that has definitely been one of the things I’ve worked on,” Athos says.

Product development has been a strength for Turtle Island since its inception. Tibbott has relied on creativity and a nose for the holes in the market. “Tofurky was really the stroke that changed the course for us,” Tibbott says. “I think new products are as much art as they are science.” Both men are consumers of their own products and of their competitors’ foods. Tibbott trusted his preference for the taste and texture of tempeh over tofu more than 30 years ago, and he continues to rely on his intuition today as they innovate products like their deli slices, sausages and frozen pizzas. He is sensitive to spicy foods, so they’ve steered clear of anything with too much kick, even in their pizza line. “Not only do I not like spicy things, but the data backs me up there,” Tibbott says. It’s just one example of his tastes and opinions matching that of his consumers.

Athos regularly brings home samples of potential new products for his wife, Rachel, and their two young sons, Max and James, but his scientific education lends itself to a different way of looking at Tofurky’s product development. Athos gets excited talking about the heat given off during the soy- fermentation process, and according to Tibbott, Athos has a gift for understanding numbers, systems and the biology and chemistry of their business, such as the science of gluten. It’s these talents, rather than decades of honed instinct, that will shape the way the company manufactures new products in the coming years.

“I’m probably even more aggressive about innovating new products,” Athos says, but he also understands that when it comes to food, science has its limits. “Anything with a sensory experience is subjective,” he adds.



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