20 years of Tofurky, from vegan zombies to 'Jeopardy'

Did you know Tofurky has been around for 20 years? Here's a look back at two decades of the faux turkey

If you're a meat eater, you may just think of Tofurky as that slightly rubbery, squishy protein you tried at your hippie friend's dinner party, or the butt of a few late night comedians' Thanksgiving jokes. But did you know that Tofurky has been around for 20 years? 

With vegan restaurants booming across the country, it's not uncommon these days to see a turkey substitute on the Thanksgiving dinner table. But 20 years ago, more often than not, the dish at the center of the table was a big, meaty roast bird. That's when longtime vegetarian and sometimes vegan Seth Tibbott wanted something more than a collection of side dishes on his vegetarian holiday table. 

In 1995, Tibbott created Tofurky roast, a vegan meat substitute that has become a mainstay for vegans and vegetarians during the holidays. The roasts were priced at $35, and came in three- or five-pound sizes meant to feed at least eight, stuffed with stuffing and gravy. 

"I'd always gather for Thanksgiving with a group of friends. A lot of them were vegetarian, and we were just messing around with stuff, trying to figure out what to eat," said Tibbott. "Sometimes we'd have like a stuffed pumpkin, which was pretty good, but it wasn't like this sort of high protein, exciting thing that we wanted it to be." 

Tibbott got together with Hans Wrobel, who at the time was selling his own stuffed tofu roasts at a small sandwich shop in Portland, Ore. The two made a tofu log with tempeh drumsticks and decided they were onto something. 

The initial response to Tofurky was positive, but not everyone was onboard with the idea of Thanksgiving without the turkey. 

"It was a very positive response once we got through the gatekeepers, which are the retail people who decide what goes on the shelf," said Tibbott. "Some of them were like, 'Oh man, I don't think I can sell one.'"  

But Tofurky roasts continued to sell after an appearance on "The Today Show," eventually turning into a $30 million a year business. Tibbott has sold more than 3.5 million Tofurky roasts in more than 25,000 stores on five continents. 

"It was a concept that was niche, that really hadn't been discovered," said Tibbott. "We were the first in with that niche and people loved it." 

People also loved the name, which Tibbott says had been around for a while, but wasn't trademarked. (It is now.)

Since the first Tofurkys in '95, Tibbott has tweaked and updated the recipe, which is now made from a mixture of wheat gluten and tofu. The company behind Tofurky, the Oregon-based Turtle Island Foods Inc., uses its own special machines to form the Tofurkys and a mixture of seasonings and extracts to flavor the faux birds. 

Compared with the multiple hours it takes to cook an actual turkey, which Tibbott refers to as a "fake Tofurky," a two-pound Tofurky roast takes one hour and 15 minutes to cook in the oven at 350 degrees. By the time the Tofurky reaches your kitchen, it's pre-cooked, and just needs a short while to warm up. 

Tofurky roasts now come in two or one and a half-pound sizes for around $7.99 to $9.99, or you can purchase an entire feast with gravy, vegan brownies and more for $19. Tibbott also said the company is working on a new product it will reveal at the Natural Products Expo West in Orange County. 

According to the Vegetarian Society, the vegetarian products market is now worth hundreds of millions of dollars and growing. 

"Now you have the investment banker and venture capital community banking vegetarian food," said Tibbott. It's great to see vegan foods growing and expanding, and being sort of hot and happening." 

Tofurky has been featured in multiple TV spots over the years, including a reference by a vegan zombie on "The X-Files" in 2000, an appearance on "Felicity" in 1999 and as the answer to a $400 question on "Jeopardy" — which none of the contestants was able to answer.

"But my Aunt Rosie got it in her old folks home in Minnesota," said Tibbott. "She's the same aunt who told me 20 years ago that this was the stupidest idea I'd ever had." 

Whatever you're eating, make sure there's enough cranberry sauce. Follow me on Twitter @Jenn_Harris_

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