Innovator of the week: The Crazy Story of the Founder Who Lived in a Treehouse – Seth Tibbot
In this week’s episode of “Innovator of the week” we’re going vegan! We’re looking at the plant-based brand that has made the transition to a flexitarian diet much easier for many people across the world: Tofurky – a $40 million company!
Seth Tibbott, as a child, had a diet largely consisting of brown sugar and butter sandwiches and baby peas. Growing up, he had hated Thanksgiving celebrations because of his strong dislike towards any of the traditional Thanksgiving food offered to him then – as we all know, children are picky eaters.
In 1969 Tibbot went to college to first study general courses and then specializing in elementary education. Soon after, he had dropped out of college once finding the courses rather… boring.
In the 1970’s, during the height of the Vietnam War and post-summer-of-love, Seth had laughed at business majors. He never took a business class in college and had no aspirations of owning a business. After dropping out of college, he became a teacher naturalist, where he really discovered his love for being outdoors with kids. Not long after, he landed himself a job in the Portland area, teaching outdoors school.
During this time, in his early twenties, Seth came across the book “Diet for Small a Planet”, by Frances Moore Lappé, that points out to the American public that there was no sense to feed all of these animals grains and maybe get 1 pound of meat, as opposed to directly providing the grains to people to not only save grain, but also water and all other farming resources. This made sense to Seth as a naturalist. This inspired him to become a vegetarian.
When he became vegetarian, his diet mostly consisted of vanilla wafers and candy bars – mostly due to the lack of societal knowledge on the vegetarian diet.
In the summer of 74, Seth visited a ‘Hippie Commune’ in Tennessee called ‘The Farm’, where he first discovered the plant-based protein; Tempeh – a traditional Indonesian food made from fermented soybeans. Once back in Oregon, Seth continued making Tempeh for himself, friends and family.
THE UPHILL STRUGGLE FOR SETH
At this pont, Seth was living in a TP during the summer and a barn in the winter, all while fermenting his Tempeh to sell to retreat groups. Seth decided to turn this into a proper business after he had moved into a house with his girlfriend, which was just up the road from an Indonesian restaurant. He took this as a sign to meet the owner and discuss introducing Tempeh to their menu. The restaurant owner had continued to order Tempeh for Seth, who had, in turn, asked the local Co-op to rent out their kitchen for $25 a month.
From this, he registered Turtle Island Soy Dairy as a business in 1980. In 1981, his main clients purchasing the Tempeh were the ‘early adopters’ to the vegetarian and vegan diet. In April, the distributor of Applegate Natural Foods, approached Seth with the order to make 1,000 pounds of Tempeh every week. In response, Seth had to purchase a larger space to cook and ferment the Tempeh. His business, at that stage, was grossing around $13,000 a month, so he started looking at a vacant school kitchen to begin placing this larger orders with Applegate. Seth and his brother made a batch of tempeh for the school board which led to conversations about renting the school kitchen for a lower cost. A deal was agreed and Seth began fermenting.
In 1983, the business was unprofitable, and Seth couldn’t even afford his rent. He was living rent-free and thinking how he could turn his business around. After some thinking, he decided to begin renting out the classrooms to fellow businesses. One of which were for two clowns… yes you read that right; clowns. When the rent market got better, Seth was forced to move out of his rent-free accommodation. He then began renting 4 trees for $25 a month to build a treehouse. YES. A TREEHOUSE.
So. Seth lived in a treehouse for 7 years. A 3 level-treehouse to be exact.
Close to approaching his late 30’s, Seth reevaluated his business and the profitability. Even with an offer to sell his tempeh business to a tofu business for $25 million and a secure job earning $1,000 per month, Seth prodded on to carry on growing his own business. He turned down the big money to continue his passion. Over an 8 year period, Seth lived off a salary of $31k. Although he felt like a failure in the business world, he was fulfilled with the mission and being able to see more and more people adapt their diets and incorporate tempeh into their diets.
Around 92, Seth moved in with his girlfriend. Into a normal house. He also moved his kitchen into a space of a tortilla factory, which was financed by his brother. The two vendors that had worked with Seth had been making a tofu roast, which gave him the inspiration to make ‘tempeh drumettes’. And that’s when Tofurkey came to market.
Seth and Hans (the one vendor) had developed a full Tofurkey 8-legged roast for consumers. They were sold for $30 each in the freezer section. The co-ops rallied to embrace the concept and customers were LOVING it!
In their second year of launch, they took their business online and sold 300 boxes. A fun fact: Tofurkey was one of the first ever foods to be sold on the internet!
In 1997, their third year of business, Seth collaborated with a friend to redevelop the recipe with added seitan. Marketing came from comedians mocking this new ‘non-meat’ substitute. Which brought some great exposure to the brand.
IN THE GREEN
In around 2000-2001, they brought the production of Tofurkey in house rather than buying it from manufacturers and then the business took off. They could now offer a range of products – like smoked slices, and sausages – which became really popular among their client base.
Seth currently employs over 200 employees, and the business generates revenues between $40-$60 million a year!