Tofu Pair Promotes The Near-beef Dining Experience

Farm/business

Finding Market Niche Requires A Little Ingenuity

February 09, 1992|By Kerry O'Rourke | Kerry O'Rourke,Staff writer

ELDERSBURG — You can sprinkle it on pizza or stir it into a spaghetti or sweet and sour sauce. It won't be meat, but the look and taste will be close.

Tofu that looks like meat -- but has a fraction of the fat and calories -- may not be the next taste sensation to sweep the nation, but two Montgomery County men are confident that their products, which will be made here, will find a niche in the market.

"It has the texture and flavor of meat, but it still is a naturalproduct," said Edward H. Walker II, chairman of LiteTrends Co. Inc.

"You could make our products in your own kitchen, but it would take hours," he said.

If you want to try it, Walker and his partner Andrew J. Wilks, president of the company, won't tell you how. Their recipe for turning tofu -- a custard-like food made from soybeans -- into what looks like sausage, ground beef and strips of meat is a secret.

Walker had the brainstorm.

"I do TM (transcendental meditation), and it came to me at the end of a meditation," he said.

At the time, he and Wilks worked in upstate New York at a retreat center where meat wasn't on the menu. Guests weren't enthusiastic about the tofu entrees the partners prepared, so Walker and Wilks tried to finda way to make the meat substitute more palatable.

They experimented with Walker's idea, and seven years ago, served tofu in a sweet and sour sauce. The guests applauded, Walker said.

The partners tookit as a sign, formed a company and test marketed the product.

During six months in 1986 and 1987, they sold $100,000 worth of the tofuin kosher and health food stores in 44 states, Walker said.

Threeyears ago, they were accepted into a business incubator program at the University of Maryland College Park, where they were given staff, equipment and technological support.

"We've worked a long time on this," said Wilks, 33. "We're feeling confident. We're very close to taking off."

This month, LiteTrends' five employees will begin making three products at its facility at the Eldersburg Business Center on Sykesville Road, said Walker, 37.

They have purchase orders, but won't say from whom.

"A well-known weight-control program" is interested in adding tofu to its pasta sauces and "a well-known" pizza restaurant chain is interested in using tofu as a topping, Walker said.

Two Maryland investment groups each invested $250,000 in the business.

Calvert Social Venture Partners in Bethesda invests in "young, socially responsible companies." Managing general partner John May said LiteTrends' products won't "sweep the country" and replace ground beef and sausage, but they will provide a good alternative to meat.

Barbara A. Plantholt, president of Triad Investors Corp. in Baltimore, said she served a tofu pizza to her board of directors -- "meat and potatoes people" -- and they liked it.

"The taste is similar, if not identical, to the products they're trying to emulate," shesaid.

The product names aren't catchy, but they tell the story: "This isn't meat sausage topping," "This isn't ground beef" and "This isn't meat strips."

Twelves ounces of the pre-cooked product will sell for about $2.59, Wilks said.

During the first year, the tofu will be marketed to large users such as universities, nursing homes, pizza chains and food manufacturers, Walker said.

Sales are expected to reach $770,000 the first year, and the company plans to hire six to eight production workers, he said.

In the second year, the partners hope to sell to retail outlets including grocery and health-food stores.

By the fourth year, they hope to employ 25 to 30 people, Walker said. They expect business will be evenly split between institutional and retail customers.

"Southern California and Florida represent real marketing bastions for us," he said.

The 6,000-square-foot plant has the capacity to handle about 10,000 pounds of tofu aday, Walker said. The tofu will come from a Washington supplier, he said.

Other employees at the plant are: Mark Aguilar, operations manager; Barbara Parry, administrative manager; and Irwin Weiss, national sales manager.

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