A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats: A Conversation Between Two Plant-Based Pioneers


I had this mission you know making this food that was really healthy for people and it was low on the food chain, and it was ecological. I
loved those days but you know I was living the dream and loosing my shirt, I
guess. You know it wasn’t very profitable I made $31,000 in nine years – the first
nine years. And I had at one point built this tree house. I rented four trees for $25
a month from my neighbour and I built with another couple thousand dollars –
I had never built a house. I rented the trees so that’s like six dollars
and 40 cents a tree or something for a month. Not bad hey! And I built this
three-story tree house and it was about three meters by four meters so it was a
tiny house – one of the first tiny houses. Tiny houses were not a thing. It was in a tree and I’d have like squirrels that would come – flying squirrels would come land on my house at night. It was like I was on their route. It was like at 2:00 in
the morning and they would come up to my window and the little squirrels would be there
and put their head in but it was a way to keep my overhead low and I didn’t have much
money you know 300 bucks a month but if you’re going to pay in $25 per month for
rent, you could make it happen. I was involved in a lot of logging, sort of
environmental saving forests back then too, and you know it was really good, but I
would go to the tax guy every year he’d go, “how are you still in business?” you know, “how
much money did you lose this this year?” Well, I’ve lost quite a bit you know, but then
you know I had this moment of Tofurky and Tofurky was a food that I wanted
to find something to eat at Thanksgiving because the meat-eater friends were having this big party and they were having drumsticks and wishbones and everything
and was nothing for me. I was poking around salad and mashed potatoes. And I came out with the first Tofurky in 1995. Sold 500 and right away, it was like this moment
of like finally I can see my way through this thing. It was a breakthrough and I
could see the future of like I’ll have this product and this product and it was just
say, what the Greeks call a “Kairos” moment you know where times stood still for me. We were a little company but we were getting calls from the New York
Times and we had to put them on hold to talk to the Wall Street Journal, the
Washington Post and it was just this media swarm every year at holidays. We just
expanded upon that and now we’re worldwide – about, well around 25,000 plus stores and Tofurky is a household name basically. We’ve created a name in American culture so that was kinda the birth story of Tofurky, but I’m interested to know you know Fry’s because I feel
like we’ve been bashing our heads against the same wall for so long that
we kinda bashed them into a similar shape almost! And listening to your story… Except my hair still has got a little bit of hair on it …Well bald is very popular now, I don’t know if you know that I feel sorry for you. I’ll never have it shaved to match you Like, it’s an incredible story how parallel
that is really sort of in so many ways but not in every single way but in so many ways in the path that I found myself involved in. So if I draw any parallels, I would say I would start off with the one place where we were totally under
unparalleled is that you were driven by this eco thing from a much younger age than I was and so my epiphany started to happen later in life when you know I had a wife, I met my wife, married a wife who was vegetarian – born vegetarian – never eaten meat in her life from wherever she remembered, from two, three years old, when she had a choice
and then my daughter, Tammy, was born and she also chose – she just naturally – so it
was almost like I don’t like to use it but I call it “divine intervention”. It almost felt like I had been chosen to bear this cross of these two vegetarians when I was a huge meat-eater, in fact wasn’t only a meat-eater I was actually
buying and selling livestock for slaughter so that’s how there’s a very big
difference between what you were and what I was; where I was just on the other
side of the scale you were already involved in your mind in, you know, you
already broken the illusion of what meat is mentally and I was still living very
much in that… I basically was in a lower level than you were. But when it happened and you know my mind managed to expand beyond the illusion of
meat and we started… then it became very parallel to your story because I
also lived in a very very humble place. It was literally… in South Africa we have
these concrete – precast concrete fences – so they don’t use wire for a fence or
palings or timber it’s these concrete fences where these slats of concrete that go into two channels that you create this fence out of. I created a house out of concrete fencing and it was just one room which is about five meters long by about four meters wide and it had a tin roof on it and there were no bedrooms, there was no bathroom. I had a shower in one corner, the kitchen in
the other corner, my bedroom in the other corner and a desk in the other corner
and I was living in that house. I had no running water; I had fetch water from the river so I had to actually… it’s much a tree house… yeah almost, so I had to go down to go down to the river which was quite a scramble – it was a steep hillside scramble Carry a 25 liter water up on my back and that would last me for showering and so on Yeah, see I had running water at least with a pipe up to the tree. It was cold water… But eventually I did pipe water there, I found an old, used pump down by the river which I refurbished – I’m pretty handy with
machinery – and I got it going. I’m from a farming background; my dad taught me how to fix stuff and I knew how to fix machinery, so I fix this pump and I finally pup water up to the house after a number of years and I was actively
trading in livestock at the time but a really really struggling financially
and so then I meet my wife – I don’t know why she was attracted to me. She was a
vegetarian first off and here I was trading with animals but anyway she found something that she must have found attractive in all of that negative stuff and so she started to help me and she never ever criticized my way but
she would not eat meat when I said, “You need to eat meat” – she wouldn’t do it and then Tammy came along and with this influence I started to think about… and eventually I thought, “well you know… ” Then I researched and I realized you know the damage to the environment that it’s happening as a result of you know just
grazing – forget about well the crops that were being planted to feed these cattle for us so started to investigate that and what was really hurting me was
the destruction of the environment really I knew that the cattle were suffering as well but I just felt like if we carry on like this, we are going to have no water left, you know. And so, that was a thing that was really getting me going and then you know more and more I felt empathy for the animals and so on. So yeah I mean I
had the same problem as you – so Christmas comes along, it’s a social occasion and
it’s about ham and turkeys in South Africa – you have your Thanksgiving and so what do you eat? Well, you go to a BBQ, what we eat? You know chuck a pumpkin on the BBQ and so I was really struggling as a person who had eaten meat most of my life to come to terms with how long will I be able to be last
like this. So eventually I changed from our livestock business. My wife and I had run quite a reasonably successful construction business and so
I said say to her one day, “I’m not doing this anymore. I’m stopping.” One of the reasons being I had built a huge piggery and I had gone back
there and I’d seen what happens in a 1,000 sow piggery unit. I’ve actually seen it with my own eyes and I had to fix stuff when I went back and I was actually ashamed of
what I’ve built and I decided, “okay that’s it for me and I’m finished with. I’m gonna be a vegetarian but if I have to be a vegetarian I’m got to invent a
food which looks and tastes like meat and has great taste so that I feel… so that I don’t feel cheated.” If I had to eat salad as you call it poking around the
salad and you know, veggies, and so I just got this feverish sort of enthusiasm to invent something that was going to work for me and so you know what did I know about anything in terms of food ingredients and so we put one
thing in the other and together mixed ingredients and heated them and cooled
them and formed them and cooked them until eventually I came up with a… I would
say a… I don’t want to call it a technology because it’s not high-tech but it was a secret to how I put ordinary food ingredients together and made something that would tasted like meat and that was okay for me. And then other people got to taste it and then it grew out from there because
they said, “no you have to take this to supermarkets”, and so we did and and then it just really expanded very quickly from there. I was just in South Africa; I was just
working crazy hours and I think we were listed at every supermarket chain
in South Africa. It was probably about 2,000 stores within 18 months. So that was
very quick. We didn’t have a factory. We didn’t have, you know, I was making the
stuff on a stainless steel pot on a two-plate burner… Sounds familiar… And so I had to convert from that to supplying
supermarkets. I didn’t know what the machines would look and feel like. I had
to just really just wing it and there was no one to help me because there was nobody else
making what we make, and I think it was the same for you. Yeah, you know, you
probably get this question too you know a lot of times people ask, “well
why if you’re vegetarian or vegan do you want to make your tofu
taste like meat?”, you know and it’s a fair question because I think that there are
really two kinds of vegans or vegetarians – there are those that are very happy with
just eating salad, mashed potato you know veggies, and then there’s some
like me, you know, I love the taste and texture of meat I grew up eating that
you know in high school, as a kid and now it’s just a great way for these people
to get flavor and taste and texture of meat without actually causing any
harm to any animal, without all the harm to the environment and to be in a
healthy diet. So it’s like very few people come into being vegan or vegetarian
because they hate the taste and texture of meat. They really like that; there’s all
these other reasons: health, environment, it’s animal cruelty, and so if you’re
ticking off a lot of boxes – and people I think don’t understand that. So yeah I mean I’ve had that question also as you must have had so many times and for me it’s just a
very easy… it’s an easy question to answer – just in the way you have. So yeah, from that we must have been… … there must been a lot of people looking
for that solution. While we didn’t really struggle in the beginning, I mean we had
stock return to us because it had expired as on, but then I think once people… and
we had no money to advertise so it just had to word of mouth stuff. But once people found this, I call it a “crutch” a helping hand to become more kind to the planet, animals and themselves, they found this helping hand… it became like it’s almost like the e-cigarette you know, because these guys don’t give up smoking because
they hate it, they give up smoking because what’s about smoking you know the result and effect of smoking, the consequences, and so the e-cigarette is
like, “oh well I can do that and it’s not so bad”, so we kind of help people along
to the extent now that we also are in something like thirty countries around the world; I don’t know how many supermarkets there are – I would hate to hazard a guess, but numbering in the thousands and and we just really happy about the fact that you know from
those days, products like Tofurky and Fry’s Family Foods are now almost, sort of, they are nudging onto the mainstream. And to your point, I see what you’re saying about transitional foods that help make this change because it’s a long way to go from eating steak to a lot of tofu,
and a lot of people don’t understand and I often say Tofurky is for tofu haters… like I
was in a meeting over there in the UK with these buyers and they were like, “Ahh, I hate tofu.” And I was like, “Ohh, you’ll love Tofurky!” because it’s for tofu haters. Because if you love tofu like I do – I can eat it raw and everything – but I’ve been trying to transition I guess for I don’t know forty to fifty years so I’m
still just transitioning, eating this “transitional foods” so maybe it’ll be interesting to see the future, how this basically evolved because the technology is evolving and more and more
ingredients are coming into play that we didn’t have access to 1980 and it’s
just amazing to me right now to see this market and what’s doing. I mean, you
know, we’ve been in business now for well 39 years and so we’ve seen up times and
down times and just everything in between, but I’ve never seen anything
like the last two years. Are you seeing…? I mean this is really starting to get serious right now. It is really starting to do that, I mean to the
extent that we had to – well one of the reasons why we left South Africa as a family and came to live in the first world, if you want to call it that, was to be in touch with
what people in the first world are looking for really and to expand our
market in those places. We’ve got very very capable people and now my factory is very process-driven so I don’t have to be in that factory everyday – I have very, very good people working for me. Some of my people are been with me for 25-years. These people know what they’re doing. I don’t have to have some guru manager
that I employ, you know, that’s been running some of the huge companies come in and tell them how to run that business. They know what to do It’s endemic in their souls. These people are black belts in what they do, so we can leave there and get opportunity to see
the wider world and really when we got to it – even just five years ago in Australia it was a hard sell. Just in five years, Seth, it’s changed beyond any kind of imagination. It’s just exploded and the buyers are actually calling us in and saying, “come on guys what can we do.” Before we were going in
and saying, “please”, literally “please on our bent knee, you need to put at
least one product” and now it’s the other way around. They are actually asking us because they acknowledging the space is different. Same thing here – just seeing that in Australia, 54th largest country in the world but the fourth largest vegan market in the world, now that’s amazing figure when you think of the
penetration of vegan foods here in Australia… …it’s true. It’s really great to see. For me
if you had asked me to have a discussion with Tofurky ten years ago, I
would have said, “no they’re my competition and I need my business.” That’s what I would have said, I’ll get it to you, because that’s the truth and because I’m a businessman as well and I would have said that but the truth is now that
almost – I’m speaking for myself and I’m sure that I can reflect maybe what’s going on in Seth’s mind – is that almost I feel that we’ve reached that place where we
don’t have to be greedy for market share because there’s enough market. Both
companies make wonderful products that – we’ve proven that you know – I make the
claim if I don’t mind – having to be brave enough to claim that we both make products that have proven themselves. We’ve been in the market for thirty years, I think Seth for longer. But that proves something that the products are good and people will love them so we’ve done all of that. Now the market is big enough where we can share those spaces, we can share
those spaces, and speak about it openly with each other and actually collaborate
about you know what’s a good idea, what isn’t a good idea. That doesn’t mean to say we have to copy each other’s stuff or anything, it’s just about
collaboration of ideas because we both set out to do the same thing: to make it easier for people to become vegetarians and vegans and we almost achieve that in
almost a global sense because yes, we’re not in America, but Seth is, so if you just take the global footprint of the two companies, it’s really huge! So the two companies are influential. Yeah and you know the
bottom line to us is we want all vegan companies that are
producing good quality tasting products to succeed. Why do we want that? Part of it is our altruism – we want to veganise the planet but part of is just for
business reasons too because it’s easier for us to go in and place products in a
hot category that’s really spiraling upward than it is in a slow category.
It’s a harder sell to go in there and say, “the reason your category is failing
is that you don’t have our products”, and they’re like, “oh you’re the fifth person today
whose come in and told me that story so that’s really good.” But you know the real watershed
moment for us in the United States was two years ago when The Plant-Based Foods Association formed. Michelle Simon, this brilliant lawyer, had this idea of like, “let’s get together so we can be a calm voice and lobbying government as needed”,
and we had a meeting at Expo West, this big trade show, and it was like the first
meeting, I got to say, it was a little weird like people were looking around and
they’re like, “I’m working for this guy”, you know he’s my competitor and everything. But then after like one year later after PBFA had formed and we’ve got all these companies
on board it really made it more a lot friendlier – just it was getting all this
attention in the press you know. There was actually a headline that said Now
Even Tofurky Has Its Own Lobbyists in Congress – and we did, you know, we had
somebody who would speak not just for us but for the whole plant-based space. It got
all of this great press and really moved everything forward and I think that you
know that’s been a real help because now we have 115 companies and everything
from big, to real tiny startups, and it’s just a really positive thing for
educating the consumer getting you know sales data out to
everybody and just has really supercharge the category. So what are
we doing because, we don’t have that, and that’s really a great innovation and thing that you’re doing over there. But what we’re doing now is we’re identifying people who are really good at what they do in the vegans space. It might be making tofu. It might be making you know a cheese or it might be even making just a dip, and so if it’s really excellent because one of the hallmarks
of my life is about striving for excellence and if it’s really excellent we will go to that person, and say, “look, you really good at what you do but you’re using the little
stainless steel pot and your thermometer, and struggling along, how can we help you to grow more and get these wonderful products to really to all people?” And we
currently working with a few of those and one of them is coming along quite nicely
and so we do help them in so many ways and we track them – so we give them their
own brand space on the packaging. We give them their own brand space and we just
put a little thing to say that Fry’s is helping them along. I love it,
yeah, I love working with those small companies too because that’s
how I still think, you know, after you’ve come from a space like we’ve come from, you can understand their problems, what they’re doing. You know the job of
veganizing the world is a huge job and we need to do this because you know so
many reasons especially you know you look at the footprint of animal
agriculture and all these stations and the land and the habitat loss and the
effect on global warming of it. We don’t have a lot of time – we’ve got to get this
in gear and it’s just really our customers want to see diversity; they
want choices in the marketplace, they don’t want just Tofurky, Tofurky, Tofurky,
for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Yeah, i’m doing that, but you know
it’s great to see that they can have Fry’s burger or lunch and a Tofurky sausage for dinner or just some other brand you know I mean because once they
breakthrough and they start eating and having a good experience the product
they are more likely to experiment and shop anywhere. So mean, not everyday can be a “Fryday”. That’s brilliant, I gotta say. We have Tofurky Tuesday’s. You want Friday, we’ll take Tuesday. So we used to say everyday is a Fryday. So anyway, I 100% agree with what
you’re saying and and the great thing about… so the way I identified with these
people was their struggle to get out of their little kitchen with a little two-plate burner and stainless steel pot, but their passion is – you can’t measure it – it’s so
great. Their passion and their ability to be enthusiastically involved in creating
excellence. That’s what we’re after. So we could go and buy a company right now
that’s already turning over, whatever millions, and just have a bunch of people
here that are totally you know just working for a salary, the boss is working
for his profit, you know the owner is working for his profit, he studies the
reports and the budgets and they’re going along there. This guy hasn’t even got
a report or a budget you know with his little pot. He’s just wanting to make a great
product that’s the kind of guy we’re really after. I think it’s the same with you you know
I mean that’s a good point like a lot of these bigger companies they go home at
night and they go, “how can we make this product cheaper and how can we get like
a penny more of each product?” When we go home at night thinking how can we make this
product better? How do we make it tastier, how do we make it you know into more
mouths by the flavors. We’re all about trying to get savory flavors and
everything as you are, because as you know all these other great reasons are
valid but if it doesn’t taste good, it’s not going to make it. And so, that’s our big focus – we really spend on time trying to get the flavor and texture
right on things so it’s really key – that’s the portal we use, to people’s hearts.
So that is really where we share a commonality – it’s a very powerful sort of you know, convergence of ideas because that’s all we’re about and we have a lot of media about so many other things but it was just about that and I’m always
at loggerheads with marketing, research and development and so on, I always
at loggerheads because people tend to follow trend instead of just following better. And better becomes trend. So you market the hell out of anything that’s rubbish, and you’ll sell a lot of it for a short period of time right but if it’s better,
people will hang onto it for years. This is way more than a trend at this point you know. What we’re seeing in the US you know right now is twenty percent
growth in the supermarket channel for plant-based food which is enormous because supermarkets run as you know on a very low margin. Like if they make two
percent they’re like, “whoa yeah we had a great year! We grew two percent!” So when they see a category that’s up 20 percent they don’t really know how what to do with it. It’s just been great to see. So the question keeps
coming out you know, is this just a flash in the pan or is this here to stay? I don’t
think there’s any question in my mind – it’s a whole paradigm shift that we were
seeing for the future of this planet and at Thanksgiving I used to get all of these interviews and calls from reporters and we’re
selling like a couple hundred thousand of these Tofurky roasts and they go, “this is great there’s but there is all of these millions of turkeys getting consumed. Do you ever think that this will change and you know the plant-based will become the norm and turkeys will
become something of the past?” I would always say, “yeah I think that’s possible”,
but in my heart I really you know it’s trying to convince myself almost that it
was really gonna happen and now I’m totally like sure this is going to
happen that this is gonna flip and it’s gonna you know that we are digging from wells from which the world…. yes so just as much as when you have been asked by
people in the early days “do you ever see this becoming sort of mainstream thing” and you’d say yes, yes, yes but somewhere in your heart, you were sort of feeling, “I wonder, it’s a tall order”, because it was almost such an unattainable or unachievable concept that you were almost doubting your own words. You were saying, “I’m saying this but I wonder if it can be right you know I
hope it is, but I wonder if it ever can be.” That was the you feeling had. Now
just a bit in contrast to that I never had any doubt at all that this
would happen, because… I like to… it’s almost like… this whole trip for me has been like… because you must remember I was a builder before before that I sold livestock for slaughter, so I had such a different life to you in so many ways. I needed a really
spiritual experience to bring me out of… I would say that sort of “dark place” and I
so I needed that spiritual experience and as a result, I studied, and I still do, in a very detailed and thorough way many philosophies. One of the philosophies that I follow for many years, maybe 35 years, is to do with
and is based on the Vedas scriptures. The Vedas were written about seven thousand years ago by great sages in India. So India’s spiritual development is very very
old and these people had far-reaching insights into truth and there’s this word that is used to convey a phrase of meaning in the Vedas,
and it’s a one word – it’s a one word you can capture so much within that one
word – that it’s a very powerful thing that was used often and the word is “Ahimsa”, and the meaning of Ahimsa in Sanskrit almost directly translated is
“do no harm”, so do no harm is a concept which can be… and I have spoken
about it before, where in Christianity we are told that Jesus Christ said to people
you know, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” And so many other great teachers of spirituality have said the same thing but
I think we have narrowed our vision down to do unto other people as you
would have other people do unto you so that became a narrow objective in the
way we live our life and I think the one thing I really perceived there: it was
more meant in a universal way so do unto other things – so all beings you
know rocks, plants, the air, the environment, people, animals – we have to be kind to those things so that they in turn deliver kindness back to us and so
I knew back then through all my studies that the evolution of humankind from
this more sort of “shadowy existence” or darker existence really where we don’t feel we have empathy for what’s going on around us and
we’re more interested in what suits me what do I like to eat, what tastes nice on my tongue – that kind of shadowy existence will become more emphatic to a more
universal and global feeling of how could we be emphatic to everything – literally. It’s universal. Love cannot be directed at one thing. It’s a universal thing and unless you have it, you haven’t discovered love yet.
really it is universal concept so people Really, it’s universal concept. And like the word “karma” also comes out of
that whole concept of that. Karma people think is “retribution”. It doesn’t
mean retribution. Karma is “action”. So you have to choose your actions and your
actions will have consequences and so like I have always said, if you throw a tennis ball at the wall and the harder you throw, the harder
it’ll bounce back, so if you throw bad actions to the wall, I equate those
bad actions to the tennis ball and you would have those bad actions reflecting back at you. And if you throw love at the wall you’ll have love thrown back at you
just as hard, so it’s up to people to choose and I know for a fact it was
within the human evolution to choose light over dark and they are beginning
to feel and the human society is beginning to be more and more… I mean if you go back to the days people hacking each other with swords and all over the world, and now
people are striving to create peace in this many places as they can. So there is
this trend for people to become more emphatic and more Ahmisa-oriented and it’s going to happen. And I spoke briefly to so many people in the past about the advent of consciousness within humanity and if you
look at the Industrial Revolution for example, which was a big thing in the
history of humanity, and you could take it like a graph as how the industrialization
of the world take place and you could put the graph there – it would probably be like sort of like an easy slope, but I really truly believe that consciousness which is what we’re
talking about will be a very very steep curve. It will
be almost indescribable and that’s why this whole vegan thing it’s
suddenly just becoming like an explosion all of a the sudden and I always
believed that it would be anyway, you know it was just a question of time and we
don’t live for long, really, in terms of history, so we kind of see it as taking a
long time but really in the space of time it’s just a little, little blink, so yeah. And so, we’re really you know… … the concept if you expand it out it’s like,
arm yourself, it’s like a self-interest. It’s an altruistic thing, ahimsa also… keeps coming back…Well it all keeps coming back to that Eastern philosophy about you
know they speak about “karma” now in Sanskrit the word “karma” means action
it doesn’t mean retribution for action. It actually means action. You know what I think of karma? It’s like taking a full swing of a golf ball in a tall shower and it
just bounces around over there and then comes back. It’s cause and effect. So the harder you throw the tennis ball at the wall, the harder it bounces back but if you are throwing love at the wall then you’ll get love back,
so if you’re throwing hate and destruction and ugliness at it, you’ll get that back
regardless and we are all getting it back So yeah I really do believe that there is a propensity for people to grow out their darkness,
if I’d like to call it that, and see that illusion, those paradigms, that these systems that we live in just absolutely just be shattered
and people start to making inquiry. Actually as much as I hate the media, the
media is responsible for so much because they expose truth. To act and to bring people in with love because life is way too short to hate people, and we want to bring it all together in a loving atmosphere.