The Tale of Tofutti

Written By:
Brittany Tenpenny
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The story of Tofutti is one of triumph, loss and three divine brushes with fate.

Holding the reigns of this successful company is founder and CEO David Mintz, a jovial, passionate businessman who has yet to abandon the eye of the tiger that served him well for over three decades. With a lot of prayer and even more spirit, Mintz revolutionized the tofu industry and established a business that features over 75 dairy-free products.

Success didn’t always come easy for Mintz. He struggled to get Tofutti off the ground, yet through it all Mintz never wavered in his passion for dairy-free foods. “Many times I would throw the towel in, and the next morning, I’d pick it up and start all over again. It was another day. And I did that for years,” he says.

Despite a successful 30-year career at Tofutti, Mintz believes he has just begun to fight. “I remember learning that expression when I was a little boy and it always appealed to me. And that is the way I feel after 30 years,” he states.

Tofu Time
Mintz started his career as the owner of Mintz Buffet in New York City. His self-described “gold mine” was the first Big Apple eatery of its kind—a Kosher restaurant dedicated to making delicious food.

It was here that Mintz embarked on a new venture—tofu. His interest in the bean curd started when customers asked for ice cream after dinner. Because the restaurant was kosher, it was against the rules to mix dairy with meat. Mintz was forced to deny the request until he experienced his first brush with fate.

“One day I was reading a whole food magazine and they talked about tofu,” said Mintz. “I didn’t know what that was. It explained that tofu takes on the flavors of anything you want, but it’s tasteless by itself.”

 
  David Mintz, Tofutti founder and CEO

Inspired, Mintz took a trip to Chinatown and bought tofu. Although “it tasted like you bit into a pillow,” Mintz was determined to make a dairy-free ice cream. That’s when Tofu Time was established. From 10 p.m. until 2 or 3 in the morning, Mintz perfected the recipe until it was ready for testing. He gave out samples on the street, and word of mouth quickly spread about Mintz’s delicious dairy-free treat. Soon, everyone was singing Mintz’s praises including Sylvia Porter, a New York Post writer, who christened Mintz the Tofu Guru.

Everything was going well for Mintz, but before long, fate—or in this case, Donald Trump—intervened. The famous entrepreneur forced several businesses off East 61st Street, including Mintz’s restaurant, to make way for Trump Plaza. Many aspiring businessmen would have thrown in the towel after such an event, but not Mintz. His love of food and fighting spirit kept him going.

“Indirectly, everything happens for the best,” said Mintz. “We may not see it at the time. When God gives you lemons, you make lemon meringue.”

K-O
With a new focus on dairy-free desserts, Mintz soon couldn’t keep up with his customers’ demands, so he sought the help of a small company to mass produce the ice cream. The recipe, while successful when made in a small kitchen, floundered when scaled up in a factory. The machines heated beyond the point of safety, literally blowing their tops! Mintz was forced to “reinvent the wheel again,” finding a different manufacturer to do the work. When his second attempt failed, Mintz became extremely frustrated, but he never gave up.

 
A Tofutti food scientist working on a new recipe.  

“If you have an idea, and if it doesn’t work right away, you can’t just quit,” said Mintz. “There’s no room for quitters. We try to leave that out of our vocabulary. Quitting doesn’t exist.”

For the third time, fate cast its mighty die in the form of Welsh Farms. The company was initially supportive of the product, but as time wore on and production stalled, they lost faith in Mintz. Given one last shot, Mintz and his colleagues conducted a final test at 4:00 in the morning. They huddled before the machine. With tired eyes, they watched as the needle of the machine oscillated between safety and the red zone. The machine began to clatter and pound after a few minutes.

“Can you imagine?” said Mintz. “It was like giving birth to an elephant.”

Mintz couldn’t hold back the tears as the half-gallon cartons came down the conveyor belt. For the third time, Mintz sparred with fate and won.

The Final Frontier
Shortly after this miracle, Tofutti took off. The product was shipped all across the country. Even a major U.S. ice cream distributor was interested in Tofutti, offering Mintz a distribution contract. This partnership was short lived, however. Afraid Tofutti would cannibalize the company, the distributor intentionally cut back on the dairy-free products’ sales. Mintz left the distributor to start from scratch.

“If you grow too fast, you don’t have a structure. That’s what happened with Tofutti. You don’t know where you are. You’re in a daze. So we had to fall down and get up again like a good fighter. If he never gets knocked down, he’s not a fighter because he has to be able to get up,” he says.

After much hard work and perseverance, success met the company as products like Tofutti Cuties became readily available nationwide and even internationally. Today, the Tofutti line has diversified, complete with several dairy-free cheeses—American, mozzarella, ricotta, cheddar and feta—as well as pizza and ravioli.

Despite this success, Mintz shows no signs of slowing down. He’s already envisioned Tofutti’s next products, and hopes to add 25 more products to the global catalog.

He states, “Retiring? I’ve just begun to fight.” WF

Published in WholeFoods Magazine, August 2013