Exclusive Interview: Tofurky Founder Seth Tibbott Talks New Book and What’s Next
Seth Tibbott made waves back in 1980 when he founded his cause-based business, Tofurky. Now Seth tells the story of how he helped revolutionize the plant-based meat industry in his new book, In Search of the Wild Tofurky: How a Business Misfit Pioneered Plant-Based Foods Before They Were Cool.
A longtime Mercy For Animals friend, Seth answered a few of our questions about the book, his life, and what we can expect next from Tofurky.
What inspired you to write In Search of the Wild Tofurky?
December 1, 2020, will mark the 41st year since I started the business we now know as The Tofurky Company. As I look back over these happy years, it’s breathtaking to reflect on the growth of both our company and plant-based meat alternatives. The book covers the humble roots of our company in my early years and its painfully slow growth through much of my adult life. It’s the story of working very hard, living on very little, and diligently trying to be less stupid, mistake by mistake, year after year. It’s the story of struggling for 18 years to become an overnight success. I was a pretty dense business misfit but did have a passion for bringing “low on the food chain” plant-based foods to the market. I hope that this book will both entertain the reader and inspire other misfits to pursue and stick with their own dreams to help create a better world.
You turned $2,500 into a successful global plant-based food business. What advice would you give aspiring plant-based entrepreneurs?
The term I like for these amazing people starting vegan businesses now is “plantrapreneurs.” At the risk of sounding trite, I would say they just have to keep going, even if you need to live in a tree for a few years. At the end of the day, you get the dream you prepare for. As the I Ching says, “Perseverance furthers.” But also what is unique about all plantrapreneurs—large or small—is the sense of being in business not just for the money but for the mission of veganizing the world. I think mission-based businesses have a better chance of survival because the mission is always there, even when the money is not. The mission can keep the dream alive until things really take off and the money comes in.
What does a typical day look like for you?
My role changed six years ago when I handed over the president/CEO title to my awesome stepson, Jaime Athos, who has done an amazing job of furthering the Tofurky mission. Currently, my role is more of a “brand ambassador,” telling the story of the brand and cheerleading the plant-based space in general. I love working with startup for-profit and nonprofit organizations whose vision involves helping to create a world where plant-based foods are the norm and animals are our friends, not food.
Pre-pandemic, I was going into the office two or three days a week to largely work on upcoming events and talks and also keep in touch with what’s happening in the Tofurky kingdom. But in the quarantine life, I now work from my home in rural Washington state, taking ample time to walk the quiet local roads, watching the grand parade of spring commence.
Tofurky has been a pioneer in the plant-based food space for decades. How have you been able to adapt to consumer preferences and industry trends?
Jaime and the R&D team at Tofurky have developed a great set of systems for bringing new products to market. We always look for holes in the market or areas that we think we are uniquely set up to improve on. Our underlying principles still remain the same as they have always been. We are obsessed with bringing vegan foods to market with amazing flavors and textures at the most affordable prices, using the most ecological methods and providing good working conditions and benefits to our employees.
If readers took away one idea from this book, what would you want it to be? What impact do you hope the book has on readers?
Two main takeaways: First, you don’t need an MBA from Harvard to start a successful business. It helps, but having a dream you believe in and a willingness to work very hard, utilizing creative problem solving, common sense, and business sense, trumps a degree you can obtain from any university. Second, have some fun with your business, and have fun with your life. Humor and lightheartedness are often overlooked, basic human traits that draw people into a brand. Laughter is one of the great bonding human experiences that we all share. I tried to play it straight as a serious businessman for 15 years, but the shoe never fit. When I finally found the “wild Tofurky,” business became a lot more fun and profitable.
How do you think COVID-19 will affect the plant-based food sector?
I believe we have arrived at both a tipping point and a teachable moment. The intensity of this unprecedented crisis brings with it a great opportunity for change. None of us ever want to go back to this time, so I believe more and more people will be willing to not just listen but connect the dots and be willing to make profound changes. And with the taste and texture of plant-based foods already making such huge advances, I think it makes this change all the more acceptable and easier for people to make. I look for the plant-based foods sector to come out of this with phenomenal growth. It’s a huge task veganizing the world, and we need many brilliant brands to accomplish this. It’s an all-hands-on-deck moment for the industry.
What can we expect next from Tofurky?
After over five years of work, we have created some vegan cheeses that we are very excited about that we will soon be launching under the new “Moocho” brand. It’s a fresh, new take on vegan cheese that I think has great potential. We also have been seeing very positive sales on our new plant-based burger, which is available in the produce cases in supermarkets coast to coast.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
Yes. Thank you to Mercy For Animals for your years of dedication and service. We view you as partners in bringing about a more sustainable, compassionate vegan world.
We can all help create a world that is more sustainable and compassionate—just start adding more plant-based foods to your routine! Get delicious meal ideas by ordering a FREE Vegetarian Starter Guide today, and check us out on Pinterest for even more recipes.