What can I even say about this guy?
This week’s rockstar is Seth Tibbott, Chairman and Founder of the family-owned Tofurky Company and its parent company, Turtle Island Foods, which he started in 1980. A stubborn enthusiast of tempeh — I am part of this small but passionate club as well! — Seth developed the second biggest tempeh company in the U.S. until he started making the famous Tofurky roasts in 1995 and those soon took the world by storm. Selling just 500 roasts their first year, they have now sold over five million Tofurky roasts, and this does not include the many other vegan proteins they’ve developed since the roast’s success.
Seth, who famously lived in an Oregon tree house for years, is now in a place where he’s able to give back and help so many new, plant-based companies and vegan non-profits take over the world. Right now, Seth is especially passionate about his role as US ambassador for Veganuary, which had tremendous success in the UK and has recently launched in the states. (Doubt me about their reach? Use “Veganuary” as a search term and click “news” on Google and be prepared to hit refresh a lot.) I can’t wait to see how this will unfold here. In any case, I am beyond proud to feature the amazing Seth Tibbott as this week’s Vegan Rockstar.
1. First of all, we’d love to hear your “vegan evolution” story. How did you start out? Did you have any early influences or experiences as a young person that in retrospect helped to pave your path?
I became a vegetarian in 1972 while attending college in Ohio. I had just read Frances Moore Lappe’s Diet for a Small Planet. This book pointed out the inefficiency of feeding grains to animals instead of directly to humans. As an aspiring naturalist, watching the encroachment of farm fields onto wildlife areas of Ohio, this made sense to me. There was scant info on the vegetarian diet and pretty much zero information on how farm animals were treated. No farm sanctuaries and PETA would not exist for another 8 years. I ate a pretty bad diet at first. The word “vegan” had technically been invented then but was not a common part of the lexicon.
It was the age of the guru then and my guru was Stephen Gaskin, founder of The Farm, a 1200-person hippie commune in Tennessee. I read everything I could get my hands on about Stephen and the Farm. The Farm ate what was then called a “Pure Vegan Diet”. Today we would call this a vegan diet. The Farm was also doing groundbreaking research into soy foods and were the first people to commercially sell tempeh culture. I visited the Farm in 1977 and 1978 and was one of their first customers for the tempeh spores. The Farm Vegetarian Cookbook became my bible and tempeh, which I made in small batches in a small home incubator, became my go to protein. The Farm put me on the road to veganism and tremendously influenced my diet and life in so many ways. They are still in existence and have the Book Publishing Company that is the largest collection of vegan cookbooks on the planet.
2. Imagine that you are pre-vegan again: how could someone have talked to you and what could they have said or shown you that could have been the most effective way to have a positive influence on you moving toward veganism?
Honestly, even though I had several periods of veganism from 1977 to 2011, I was basically a “flexo vegan” all those years. Very close to vegan but would eat cheese and other non-vegan items occasionally mostly when going out to eat. It wasn’t until meeting the late, great Lisa Shapiro and visiting the Farm Sanctuary in New York that I became fully vegan and have stayed vegan. So I would say that having a compassionate friend who brought home the realities of animal suffering in a truthful but loving way had the greatest influence on me.
3. What have you found to be the most effective way to communicate your message as a vegan? For example, humor, passion, images, etc.?
I think talking about how easy, flavorful and healthy vegan diets are is most effective way to convince people, but it depends on the person and their background. There are so many great reasons to go vegan, it’s hard to choose. Compassion for animals and the earth of course need to be discussed. But bottom line, people want to enjoy their food and if food is not flavorful, it is unlikely to find a permanent part in their life. Many people think vegan food doesn’t taste good, is hard to prepare, is expensive and not healthy so there are myths to dispel. So #1 way to a non-vegan’s heart is feed them some delicious vegan food.
4. What do you think are the biggest strengths of the vegan movement?
It is founded on 4 irrefutable truths that are bubbling up into mass consciousness now:
*It is a healthy diet
*It is a compassionate diet
*It is a sustainable, ecological diet
*It is a tasty diet
5. What do you think are our biggest hindrances to getting the word out effectively?
The billions of dollars of advertising and marketing from the animal meat and dairy industries that have created false narratives and traditions in people’s lives.
6. All of us need a “why vegan” elevator pitch. We’d love to hear yours.
Uh, how many floors do I have? I fall back on the #1 motivator in commercial advertising. “Everyone is doing it!”
“In the 40 years I have been in business at Tofurky, I have seen both up times and down times in the refrigerated vegan foods category (includes plant-based milk, meat, yogurt and cheese). But honestly, I have never seen anything like the growth of vegan foods in the past 18 months. US supermarkets are happy when they see overall growth in all food of 2% per year. Before 2017, vegan foods averaged growth between 3% and 5% in US supermarkets. The supermarkets were happy with this because it was growing at two times the pace of overall food, so they saw it as a ‘hot’ category. But in 2018, vegan foods grew an astonishing 20% in US supermarkets! This is the most growth I have ever seen in 40 years. And the main reason for this? The vegan products taste so damn good now!”
It’s effective because it’s true. And though overall truth is at the lowest point I have ever seen, it still stands out to people when it is said.
7. Who are the people and what are the books, films, websites and organizations that have had the greatest influence on your veganism and your continuing evolution?
Really? I have to choose? Ack!
8. Burn-out is so common among vegans: what do you do to unwind, recharge and inspire yourself?
I recharge by:
• Organizing, speaking at and attending conferences, trade shows and festivals all over the world.
• Working with nonprofits. They are inspiring because they are mission motivated, not in it for the money. The true saints living among us.
• Traveling to places like Scandinavia, Israel, the UK and Australia and seeing vegan diets blowing up.
• Working with small vegan entrepreneurs who are bootstrapping their businesses. Tofurky grew so much because of the kindness and generosity of many people. Feels good to try and settle the score by helping others.
• Teaching people how to make tempeh in their homes.
9. What is the issue nearest and dearest to your heart that you would like others to know more about?
Currently Veganuary. Have been in the UK past two years in January and have been amazed at the spotlight this program has been shining on vegan diets there. Not only are hundreds of thousands pledging to try to eat vegan for a month but 62% say they will continue to eat vegan all year so very effective. Beyond that though, there have been over 100+ new vegan products introduced in supermarkets, natural foods stores and restaurants during January 2019 including a vegan happy meal at the UK McDonald’s. The whole month of January is basically one big vegan party. How great would that be to have in the US? A month where thousands of people experimented with changing their diets and stores and restaurants clamored to introduce new vegan options? It can happen folks. Please take the pledge, even if already vegan, at www.veganuary.com
10. Please finish this sentence: “To me, being vegan is…
“…our only pathway forward if we are to survive as a species.”