Before 1995, you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who actually called themselves
"vegan." You'd also have a hard time finding dairy- or meat-free alternatives for traditional Thanksgiving dinner offerings like turkey, cheesy potatoes, and sausage stuffing. That's why Seth Tibbott created Tofurky, the maker of plant-based delicacies that would soon become a household name--long before portmanteaus like "Brangelina" or "mansplaining."
However, what started as a way to bring vegans to the Thanksgiving table has since become part of a larger trend in American diets. Now, the once-small holiday roast startup, which hasn't taken any investor funding, is competing with the likes of Impossible Burger, Memphis Meats, and Beyond Meat, which have a combined total funding of $479.6 million, according to Crunchbase. So what are they doing about the competition? Relishing it.
"We are struggling to fulfill the demand that we've helped to create," says Jaime Athos, the president and CEO of Tofurky. "My anxiety is that we are all not growing fast enough, or new players aren't coming to the table fast enough, to capitalize on that consumer demand."
Indeed, the market for meat and dairy alternatives is juicy. Defined as vegan milk substitutes or meat-like products made from plants, the alternative protein market was valued at $4.2 billion in 2016 and is expected to expand 6.8 percent between 2017 and 2022, according to the Dublin-based market research firm Research and Markets.
"Veganizing the world and offering the products to the world is a way bigger job than one brand," says Tibbott, who began making vegan foods in 1980. "It's much easier for us to place products in a category that's hot and happening."
Tofurky expects to sell its five-millionth roast this year and says company sales are up by 25 percent year-over-year. While Tofurky wouldn't divulge recent revenue or sale figures, it told Inc. in 2011 that it booked about $8 million in revenue in 2010. The Hood River, Oregon-based company has about 200 employees and has been primarily funded by revenue growth and debt financing. Additionally, it has been releasing new products at a respectable clip, from deli slices and sausages to veggie burgers and its recent DIY burger, a "bleeding," imitation-meat patty similar to the Impossible Burger.
To keep up with emerging food trends and compete with the startups receiving millions from venture capital firms, Tofurky's staff is analyzing data and traveling the globe to find new products that might appeal to customers. This year, the company plans to expand its dessert offerings and include a chocolate espresso cheesecake to its holiday kit.
"We are thinking about what are the things that a vegan at an omnivore's Thanksgiving dinner might be envious of, or things they don't have vegan versions of," Athos said, referring to the new cheesecake. "Hopefully, [omnivores] will try it and enjoy it and realize that maybe being vegan isn't so hard after all."
Plus, in the years to come, even more traditional Thanksgiving Day options will get veganized:
- Boise, Idaho-based Melt Organic helps vegans "butter" dinner rolls and baked potatoes. It was founded by Cygnia Rapp in 2008, and it's growing fast: Revenue in 2012 was about $400,000, and last year it reached nearly $3 million.
- Don't kid yourself: It's not Thanksgiving without a Jello mold--which is formed from animal-derived gelatin. But San Francisco-based Geltor--co-founded by Nick Ouzounov and Alex Lorestani--sells vegan gelatin for use in cosmetics; expect an edible version in 2020.
- Vegans who want sausage in their stuffing--and sausage should absolutely be in your stuffing--turn to Beyond Meat's three plant-based varieties. The L.A.-based business was founded by Ethan Brown in 2009; he's also its CEO.
- Co-founders David Anchel and Arturo Elizondo expect to get Clara Foods' vegan "egg white" on the market by 2020, and an egg-with-yolk alternative the year after; the latter will make baking vegan pumpkin pies infinitely easier. The San Francisco-based duo has been working on lab-grown egg substitutes since 2014.