In the early 1990s, when Jaime Athos was a teenager who got his first paycheck by helping Tofurky move into new offices, he had big dreams of changing the world.
Athos followed those dreams, getting his Ph.D. in neurobiology and behavior. He wanted to study neurodegenerative diseases, do research, work as a college professor and improve lives. But as he got there, he realized the way he could truly change the world was by going back to his roots.
In 2014, Athos returned to Tofurky, which was started by his stepfather Seth Tibbott, to become the plant-based food pioneer’s president and CEO. He quickly felt like he was where he belonged.
“I really loved the immediacy of doing work that actually helps improve animals’ lives and human beings’ lives almost instantaneously, as opposed to the decades-long process of getting a drug approved through the FDA,” Athos said.
In the last several years, Tofurky has gone from a quirky company producing the first true vegan Thanksgiving dinner option to a powerhouse in the plant-based space. While its Plant-Based Roasts and Plant-Based Holiday Feasts are still successful — Athos said sales of these products are up 22% over last year — the company has expanded into a plethora of everyday plant-based lines. Tofurky makes plant-based chick’n, deli slices, burgers and grounds, hot dogs and sausages, and frozen pockets. This week, it finally launched its cheese brand Moocho, which was delayed several months because of the coronavirus pandemic.
But Tofurky is more than its extensive product line. It has a deeply rooted mission. It was a charter member of the Plant Based Foods Association, and Athos is currently president of the trade group’s board. The company is a Certified B Corp. And it’s been a leader in the legal fight against state laws that attempt to restrict plant-based products from being labeled with similar terminology to conventional counterparts.
“They have a really collaborative position in terms of not wanting to just further their own brand, but what can they do to demonstrate their thought leadership on behalf of the industry,” said Julie Emmett, senior director of retail partnerships at the Plant Based Foods Association.
Greg Wank, who leads Anchin’s food and beverage industry practice, said many startups today find it is vital to pattern themselves after companies like Tofurky.
“Companies today find that being mission based is almost as important as the products themselves,” Wank said. “…It’s very important to connect with that consumer on that level — on that mission level, on that impact level.”
No longer a punchline, but ‘we’re laughing along with those jokes’
Tibbott, who’s been described as a hippie and lived in a tree house when the meat-free round roast first hit shelves in 1995, brought a quirky personality to the plant-based brand.
Although the round roast got a lot of attention — at the beginning, most of it being something that people who weren’t vegans chuckled about — it’s become a holiday tradition for many. Athos said part of the genius of Tibbott and the company he founded is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Athos recalls the first time he brought his ex-wife to his family’s Christmas celebration, where Tibbott was wearing a pair of gold lamé stirrup pants. Tibbott had made himself the punchline, the same way Tofurky approached food, Athos said.
“People were suspicious of plant-based products, especially back then [in the ’90s],” Athos said. “And if you approach them with this kind of warm-hearted joviality, then they’re going to be a little more inclined to give you the benefit of the doubt and try it out. I think that’s really always been the way that this brand is operated. We’re not fighting back against being the punchline to any jokes. We’re laughing along with those jokes.”
Nobody in the food industry sees Tofurky as a joke any longer. And the longevity of the company, coupled with the increasing popularity of plant-based eating, means there are now adults who consider Tofurky a reliable and ever-present part of a holiday feast, much like green bean casserole and cranberry sauce. As a private company, Tofurky does not report sales figures, but Athos said Tofurky is currently outperforming the plant-based category in general, which he said has seen sales increases of about 18% across the board.
The pandemic has helped Tofurky’s sales in many ways, Athos said. Consumers are currently more interested in foods that could improve their health and boost their immunity, which has increased sales for the entire plant-based category. But it’s also kept consumers at home and in their own kitchens, which has provided opportunity to indulge in new-to-them products at the grocery store. Athos said many have tried plant-based meat products for the first time in years and have been pleasantly surprised at the taste of today’s offerings.
But while the products have changed, the company has grown and sales have increased, Athos said Tofurky has stayed true to its roots. When he rejoined the company, it undertook an introspective study to find who the company is and what it stands for. Tibbott’s fun and friendly vibe wasn’t just a quality brought on by the company’s founder, Athos realized. It was in the DNA of what makes Tofurky what it is, and it’s one of the hallmarks of the brand still today. All of Tofurky’s messaging — from its website to its social media channels to its product packaging — still retains this distinct personality, with fun doodles, clever puns and positive, inclusive language.
“We just didn’t realize that … until we went through that process of introspection that that’s what we were doing,” Athos said. “You can’t really shame people into making more virtuous decisions, but what you can do is show them that they can have a good time. It doesn’t have to be really serious business — hence the kind of whimsical name Tofurky — and they don’t have to suffer to eat plant based.”
While Tibbott no longer has a full-time role at Tofurky, he’s the president of the company’s board. Athos said he serves in an unofficial “founder/brand ambassador” position, and does speaking engagements to promote both plant-based eating and mission-based entrepreneurship.
The Tofurky R&D kitchen
There are many things about Tofurky that are unique compared to other food companies.
One of the biggest differences is the lack of high-tech research that often goes into developing plant-based products. Tofurky has food scientists and Ph.Ds on staff, but it develops its products in a research kitchen, not a lab, Athos said. Product formulators at Tofurky wear aprons, not lab coats, he said.
“Ours is more of a culinary process,” Athos said. “We definitely take advantage of innovations in the ingredient world, but we’re also cautious about what we put into our food because I think our consumers are cautious about what they put into their bodies. I think we’ve still benefited from all the focus, definitely on the ingredients that are kind of lesser processed. It’s been kind of what we’ve tried to build our products around.”
While there has been some sharp talk about the use of processed ingredients in plant-based products recently, Tofurky has stayed out of the fray. Its products are all non-GMO, and Athos said it ensures through careful sourcing that ingredients are all high quality. Through its culinary R&D process, Tofurky products are more clean label than others in the space, Athos said.
“You can’t really shame people into making more virtuous decisions, but what you can do is show them that they can have a good time. It doesn’t have to be really serious business — hence the kind of whimsical name Tofurky — and they don’t have to suffer to eat plant based. They can have good, tasty, satisfying, flavorful types of products.”
President and CEO, Tofurky
Tofurky also looks for the white spaces in the industry — places that could use fresh innovation. That’s behind the company’s new product line Moocho, which is hitting H-E-B stores this week with its shredded plant-based cheeses. Athos said plant-based cheese is a difficult category to get into. Sometimes it doesn’t have the right texture, but it tastes good. Some don’t melt in the way that would be expected. And some don’t taste as good if they’re not at the proper temperature. Moocho, Athos said, is a product that can be an all-purpose plant-based cheese.
In the plant-based space, Emmett said Tofurky is both an anchor and an innovator. It is one of the brands that truly founded the plant-based meat space, and it is working to make it inviting to every consumer.
“They have long-standing brand recognition, but yet they haven’t remained in that ‘penalty box’ or discounted it in any way because they continue to innovate not only their plant-based meat, but they’re branching out into other categories because of the strength of their name,” Emmett said.
There’s quite a bit in the pipeline that may be introduced in 2021, Athos said. More is coming from Moocho. And the company is making relationships with new co-manufacturers who will help get innovative and renovate products to consumers faster starting next year.
Mission above all
Tofurky has always been about a deep mission of improving lives through plant-based food. And it is present in every level of Tofurky’s business.
Beyond its products, which are made out of carefully sourced ingredients, the company engages with its employees and is transparent on pay and benefits. It doesn’t just tout the environmental benefits of eating plant-based food versus meat and dairy, but the company’s Oregon headquarters is LEED Platinum certified, meaning it meets the highest energy-saving standards. The company and its employees are focused on giving back — especially by providing healthy food to people who cannot always readily access it — but Athos said the charitable spirit has been stronger during the pandemic.
Athos said he looks at outdoor clothing and gear company Patagonia as an example for what he wants Tofurky to be. Patagonia is known for its laser focus on helping the environment, making work better for its employees and providing consumers with the utmost in transparency. Athos said he hopes people see that degree of virtuousness in how Tofurky does its business.
“We try to wear that activism on our sleeves,” Athos said. “I think that tends to resonate with younger, well-informed consumers that are thinking about the impact that their consumer dollars have, and they’d rather support a company that they feel like is doing good, rather than one of these bigger CPG companies that’s nameless and faceless, and you’re not really sure what their intentions are beyond just making a profit.”
Athos, like many other leaders of plant-based meat companies, said that others in the segment are not competitors — they’re all trying to further the same mission. There’s room for everyone in the plant-based space, he said — especially big CPGs that had previously been making animal-based products.
Tofurky turns this sentiment for the segment into action through the Plant Based Foods Association. Michael Robbins, media relations consultant for the trade group, said that Tofurky in general — and through Athos as its board chair — has taken a wide look at how to advance the plant-based food sector. Athos is active in trying to get more plant-based products in QSRs and foodservice, as well as working with retailers on product placement.
“I think there’s just something fundamentally wrong about government using its power to keep people from making better decisions, and that’s just un-American. …. We shouldn’t stifle innovation. Especially not innovation that is driving us toward positive change.”
President and CEO, Tofurky
Tofurky is also both proactive and defensive in its charge to lead the fight in three legal battles about labeling of plant-based products. Tofurky has sued Missouri, Arkansas and Louisiana, saying their laws violate the First Amendment. All three cases are still pending. Athos said the laws Tofurky is challenging are very clearly protectionist ploys to stop plant-based products from encroaching on traditional animal agriculture, and they threaten the entire plant-based space — Tofurky included. At a time when there is so much momentum in the segment, and so many players big and small looking to get into it, Athos said it’s wrong for states to jump into the fray and stop progress with labeling restrictions.
“I think there’s just something fundamentally wrong about government using its power to keep people from making better decisions, and that’s just un-American,” Athos said. “…. We shouldn’t stifle innovation. Especially not innovation that is driving us toward positive change.”
While the only litigation over plant-based labeling that has been resolved to date is one in Mississippi that was brought by Upton’s Naturals, Athos said Tofurky is dug into this fight. If any settlement is offered that would insulate Tofurky from damages, but enforce the labeling law for other products in the space, Athos said the company would reject it.
Tofurky has also been proactive in working with retailers and stakeholders to figure out the issue of product placement. Over the summer, PBFA published a study that showed plant-based products had better sales when they were in grocers’ meat sections. After the study came out, Emmett said, Tofurky started its own task force to review where its products were sold — Athos said many grocers put Tofurky in the produce section — and find out how the entire industry can talk with retailers to come to an agreement over where to find products.
Tofurky’s thorough commitment to mission from the company’s founding and on into the future is an example to younger companies, Wank said.
“That’s probably great advice to younger brands today: To make sure that this vision or this mission or this purpose that they’re communicating is authentic, because it has to be authentic enough that you can continue to point to it, and strive for it in everything you do,” he said.
Through its lifespan, Tofurky has been a family-owned company. Athos said it makes sense to its mission to stay private; they would rather reinvest money in the company than pay investors dividends. There has been a lot of interest through the years from large companies hoping to acquire Tofurky, Athos said, and they always take a hard look at these offers.
“That’s still a question that we ask ourselves: Could somebody else do more with this brand than we could?” he said. “If the answer to that is yes, then we should probably say yes to those offers. We haven’t gotten to that point yet. We still feel like this is the vehicle, the engine for my family to affect change in the world, and we haven’t identified how we can have a bigger and better impact on the world than just continuing to run this company the way that we think it should be run.”