Tofurky Manufacturer Could Make a Killing on Thanksgiving

Tofurky maker's wheat-gluten-tofu holiday offerings benefit from a growing population of vegetarians.

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To a traditionalist, a stuffed loaf of tofu and wheat gluten at the center of the Thanksgiving table might be a sacrilege. But the company that makes those loaves (better known as Tofurky) says that the idea has caught on quickly.

Sales of Tofurky roasts, marketed as a holiday alternative to Thanksgiving birds, have grown at a tremendous pace over the last 17 years, according to the company that makes the roasts. Turtle Island Foods, the Oregon-based company that makes Tofurky, sold its three millionth Tofurky roast this year. In 2011, the company sold nearly 400,000 of the holiday turkey alternatives, up nearly 12 percent from 2010 and nearly double the amount sold in 2006.

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Why the growth in popularity? Maybe it's that carving a Tofurky isn't an eight-step process. Or the pesky risk of undercooked stuffing (and salmonella) lurking in a real bird's cavity.

Or maybe it's simpler. A growing customer base doesn't hurt. The number of vegetarians in the United States has grown considerably over the last two decades. According to the Vegetarian Resource Group, only 0.3 percent to 1 percent of all U.S. adults in 1994 said they never ate meat, poultry, or fish. By 2000, it was 2.5 percent. In 2011, the figure climbed to around 5 percent, though the group's 2012 survey saw the figure tick downward to 4 percent.

But it's also a question of distribution, says the head of the company.

"When you have that kind of growth rate, it's usually because you added a new grocery chain or two or three," says Seth Tibbott, founder and president of Turtle Island Foods. Of course, the company has come a long way since distributing the first 500 Tofurky roasts to around 20 natural foods stores in 1995. This year, the company added around 2,500 new grocery accounts, according to Tibbott. He says that demand is now at an all-time high, but he also expects 2012 sales to be flat compared to last year's, as the company lost a major retailer.

While the company's growth is impressive, 400,000 Tofurkys is a modest sum compared to the number of non-imitation birds that Americans will eat this week. The National Turkey Federation estimates that Americans ate approximately 46 million Thanksgiving turkeys in 2011.

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One thing that the two foods have in common, however, is a looming price hike, thanks to a summer drought that sent corn and soybean prices skyrocketing. That means higher prices for poultry and tofu alike. However, the price hikes may not hit until early 2013. Tibbott expects a 5 percent to 6 percent Tofurky price increase next year.

Of course, faux meat isn't for everyone. For vegetarians who don't care for Tofurky but still want to feast on something with a fun portmanteau name, there is always the Veggieducken (also known as the Squashleekotato Roast), a play on the meaty conglomeration that is the turducken. Veggieducken is not meaty, but as it involves a 2-foot-long squash, it does involve some butchering.

Danielle Kurtzleben is a business and economics reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow her on Twitter or reach her at dkurtzleben@usnews.com.