Ace was lucky enough to snag a few minutes on the phone with Seth Tibbott, founder of Turtle Island Foods and creator of the famous vegan turkey substitute Tofurky. Open and warm, Tibbott immediately described himself as a “current and practicing hippie,” mentioning that he had to ask a previous interviewer to retract their statement when they referred to him in their article as a “former hippie.” Tibbott first became a vegetarian, “in 1972 after reading Frances Moore Lappe’s Diet for a Small Planet, which pointed out the efficiencies environmentally of plant protein versus animal protein.” Tibbott has now been “a solid vegan” for the last few years,” citing the health benefits and explaining that he enjoys, “not being part of that system which is ethically bankrupt but also environmentally unsound and unsustainable and not really that good for you, either.”
Ace Natural: You had several jobs before founding Turtle Island Foods. How have your careers informed each other?
Seth Tibbott: I graduated from college in 1974 with an elementary education degree. A minor career but a major interest was natural history and I was a teacher naturalist form 1974 to 1980 in the northwest Portland public school’s outdoor school program. In 1980 I was trying to start my own outdoor education facility and we were very poor and so I was like, “Oh, I’ll just start a business and that will help” (laughs). So really, the environmental piece very much was the founding ideals for the Turtle Island Foods company. The reason we keep doing what we do is for the environmental reasons of the food we make.
AN: What are your feelings on the direction of the health food industry now?
ST: Well on the one hand, the distribution of vegetarian foods and natural foods has never been higher. Just about every major supermarket chain in the country has some natural foods; some of them carry Tofurky, which is really good. On the downside, a lot of the natural foods are made by multi-national corporations that don’t share the core vales of natural foods.
AN: How does the fact that Turtle Island is a family-owned company shape the way that you run it?
ST: Well, it’s changed quite a lot. I’ve been in the business 32 years so I’ve seen a lot of my friends’ businesses, these small, passionate soy businesses and other businesses get bought up by these corporations. When they do it seems like the focus, a lot of the light and the passion goes out and the innovation goes out and they just become brand managers and they go home at night thinking, “How can we make this product one penny a pound cheaper?” And we [at Turtle Island] go home at night thinking, “Gosh, how can we make this product taste better or be a better product?” We are more mission driven than we are money driven.
AN: The Tofurky holiday feast comes with eight drumsticks. When you originally created the Tofurky were you trying to create a new sort of “animal?”
ST: It wasn’t really an animal, we didn’t really know what a Tofurky looks like in the wild but we knew it had these eight sort of drumstick things. Then we figured out, “Oh, its not an animal…Duh, it’s a plant!” We did have a contest. (Laughing) We asked our customers to show us what Tofurkys looked like in the wild and we got some great drawings. The winner did figure out that they grew on trees and they fell on the ground and each fall we just walked out and plucked them up.
AN: When Turtle Island Foods was getting off the ground you lived in a treehouse for eight years. What was the biggest challenge in that?
ST: You know, it was pretty cool. I was making like 200 bucks a month during that year and so I rented the trees for 25 bucks a month. So the challenge, if it was a challenge, was making ends meet because we were very poor. But, you know, having no money is a lot of fun, really, if you manage it right. It’s kind of like a game, you’re just trying to survive with what you’ve got. It was very comfortable; it was warm in the winter and had a wood stove and a treehouse peehouse and running water and a telephone. What more could I want?
AN: A treehouse peehouse?
ST: Yeah, it was just like I dug a big hole and then you sat on it like a little outhouse and it went all the way down to this hole. It was pretty simple.
AN: That’s great.
ST: Yeah it was a great spot, you had flying squirrels as neighbors that would come to my window at two in the morning and wake me up. The wind would blow and it would rock you to sleep. It was pretty awesome, really.
AN: Have you ever been surprised by the way that a chef has prepared one of your products?
ST: You know, there’s this recipe for Beer Can Chicken where you open a can of beer and you put it on your barbecue and then you put the chicken on top of it and then, I guess the heat boils the beer and then flavors the chicken or something. And people did that with Tofurky…anything you do with turkey people try to do with Tofurky. The guy that did the first deep-frying of a Tofurky that we knew was actually an ex-army colonel who was a vegetarian, an army dude. It was pretty cool.
AN: Is there a type of meat, like spare ribs, that you would love to create a vegan parallel for but the logistics are too hard?
ST: Yeah there’s all kinds of meats that we would like to do. Some of them come out of a name. (Laughing) I’ve always wanted to do tuna just so I could call it “Tofuna” because it seemed like it fit with Tofurky. We’d like to do it all. Even a good steak, you know?
AN: Well, keep us updated! Do you have a non-health food guilty pleasures?
ST: I like to play golf, that’s a guilty pleasure, I guess. (Laughing) It’s not really health food, it’s not really all that environmental in a lot of respects. I don’t really have any foods that I stray from that are not vegan or anything. All vegan/vegetarian foods are really so vastly improved since 1980 when I started this business. There was nothing except for Worthington Wham. So really it’s been kind of cool to see this blossoming of that category and be part of that, too.