Tofurky, the plant-based turkey replacement product manufactured in Hood River, Oregon, has sold 5 million of its vegan Thanksgiving roasts as of this year, according to Fortune.
While that's no threat to the U.S. turkey industry — which sells about 46 million turkeys at Thanksgiving — it's a significant milestone for a company that started out on a shoestring in 1980 and has been making the much-maligned soy-based substitute turkey roast since 1995.
"That’s five million times somebody took a personal risk to show up to a Thanksgiving meal with something that was weird," Erin Ransom, Tofurky’s head of marketing, told Fortune. "It’s five million times that somebody put the roast on the table and said 'Try it with me — and if you like it, that’s cool. Maybe there’s more for you in this way of eating.'"
No longer a culinary joke, Tofurky has become big business. An early adopter of the plant-based eating trend, Turtle Island Foods — the company's name was later changed to Tofurky — was on to something when it launched its tempeh- and tofu-based meatless products in 1980 and then decided to introduce the vegan turkey replacement in 1995 and sell it as part of a vegan holiday kit.
"The first year we released the Tofurky holiday dinner, it was this little round roast with eight drumsticks. We didn't quite know what a Tofurky looked like then, but we knew it had eight legs. The hardest part was nailing the right texture. Simulating a meat taste is tricky. Creating a texture that's appetizing is harder," Seth Tibbott, the company's founder, told Inc.com in 2011.
Plant-based foods have become the go-to option for many consumers looking for alternatives to animal-based products. A recent study from DuPont Nutrition & Health found that 52% of U.S. consumers are eating more plant-based foods and they say it makes them feel healthier. Also, roughly 60% of respondents said switching to plant-based food was permanent — or they hoped it was.
Consumers decide to limit or eliminate animal products from their diet for a variety of reasons. Some want to cut back on cholesterol, others may be concerned about animal welfare, and some tend to worry about the effect of animal agriculture on the environment. Whatever the reason, more people are shifting to a vegetarian diet — or a vegan one that includes no animal-sourced products at all. According to a recent Top Trends in Prepared Foods in 2017 report, 6% of the U.S. population identifies as vegan, up from just 1% in 2014.
"That’s not a fad," Chase Worthen, a vegetarian products buyer for Walmart, told Fortune. "It’s a trend that’s here to stay." Walmart carries Tofurky products in 4,000 of its stores.
While the privately owned Tofurky has said sales have jumped 25% year-over-year, Inc. reported that it doesn't release recent revenue or sales figures. However, Tibbott told the publication in 2011 that the company took in more than $14 million in 2010 and had products on shelves at Kroger, Trader Joe's and Whole Foods.
Today, Tofurky has about 200 employees and is mainly funded by revenue growth and debt financing, Inc. noted. The company has debuted a number of other plant-based products over the years, including deli slices, sausages, veggie burgers and a recent faux meat patty said to "bleed" like the Impossible Burger. The holiday feast being offered this year includes a new item along with the vegan roast, stuffing and gravy: a vegan chocolate cheesecake made with decaf coffee from Oregon's Nossa Familia Roasters.
Despite its inauspicious beginnings, the company seems to have rejuvenated its presence in the grocery store through new products and by regularly reinventing the Tofurky brand. That's an approach taken by veggie substitute brands such as Kraft Heinz's plant-based Boca Burger and Kellogg's Morningstar Farms.
As a retro classic, Tofurky is in a class by itself, but there are other products in the meat-free entrée space that might give the original a run for its money. They include Field Roast Grain Meat Co.'s Celebration Roast with "wheat meat," otherwise known as seitan; Gardein's Holiday Roast featuring soy and wheat; Quorn's Turk'y Roast, which is soy-free but not vegan; and Vegetarian Plus' Vegan Whole Turkey, made with non-GMO soy protein.
Consumers wanting more choices at Thanksgiving could also experiment by making their own plant-based turkey alternatives from tofu, tempeh or seitan, along with grains, beans, lentils and whatever herbs, spices and other additions sound good. After all, that's how Tofurky got started.