First there was plain tofu. Then came tofu ice cream, tofu pizza, tofu lasagna, and herb tofu. Soon, says Tom Timmins, president of New Fngland Soy Dairy Inc. (#254), a soy-food producer based in Greenfield, Mass., tofu products may occupy shelf space hitherto reserved for even trendier fare.

"We think tofu will become the yogurt of the '90s," enthuses Timmins, 38, of the soybean cake that has gravitated from health-food stores to supermarkets coast to coast. "It's a terrific food: low calorie, low fat, low sodium, no cholesterol, and high in protein. We think it fits in with the new national lifestyle perfectly."

Timmins's company has been perfectly positioned to capitalize on the $60-million-a-year industry. Founded in 1977 by Tom and his wife, Judy Roberts, New Fngland Soy Dairy's only competition once came from a handful of Chinese-owned small producers. Today, there are 154 companies in the marketplace -- with 24 of them doing about 75% of the business. New Fngland Soy Dairy's product, called Tomsun, sells only from Philadelphia to Maine, but, says Timmins, "we're well positioned in the second largest natural-foods market [the first is Los Angeles], and we think we have the freshest product around. We're the first, for instance, to have an in-house testing lab run by a professional microbiologist. Freshness and quality do make a difference."

So does marketing, an area in which Timmins recently made another key move by persuading Juan Metzger, 64, the retired co-founder (with his father) of Dannon Yogurt, to come aboard as board chairman and consultant. Metzger was interested in packaging tofu four years ago, and his contribution to the marketing of Tomsun -- which includes the brand-name change from Soy Dairy -- has already been felt. Metzger argued for the new logo as a customer awareness too: and is helping raise private capital to fund Tomsun's first big ad blitz and a planned expansion of its product line. He has not, however, tampered with such managerial decisions as the one to have an all-woman sales staff. Timmins says he made that decision because "[tofu is] a tricky item to sell the first time around, and who knows more about obscure food items than women?"

Timmins isn't even worried that by merely mentioning "tofu," Johnny Carson can coax gales of laughter out of a studio audience. "I hope he jokes about it every night," says Timmins. "That will introduce the product to a whole new group of consumers, and the ones we already have don't watch Johnny Carson anyway."