Entrepreneurs betting on tofu UM program gives company a chance to taste success. HOLD THE PEPPERONI

April 13, 1992|By Ross Hetrick | Ross Hetrick,Staff Writer

Driving home after yet another 12-hour day trying to get his business off the ground, Edward H. Walker II often looks at the drivers passing by and thinks how lucky they are. They have normal jobs with normal paychecks, and they know where they'll get the money for the mortgage and the electricity bill.

That is a luxury he has not enjoyed for seven years.

Mr. Walker, 37, and his partner, Andrew J. Wilks, 33, have been struggling with their dream: a company that produces tasty meat substitutes. In the process, they have endured stretches without regular pay or health insurance, and have sunk deeper into debt.

"We would definitely take an award in perseverance," Mr. Walker says.

Now they are on the threshold of success -- they hope.

In the last few weeks, their company, Litetrends Co. Inc., has started turning soybean curd, otherwise known as tofu, into products that can be substituted for hamburger, cooked strips of beef and a sausage topping for pizza. The Eldersburg-based company is now producing 2,000 pounds of tofu for test marketing.

Litetrends' success would provide a boost for the University oMaryland's Technology Advancement Program (TAP) -- a state-supported effort to nurture struggling young companies on the cutting edge of technology.

Litetrends, a recent graduate of TAP, used the program to cut the tofu processing time from eight hours to 25 minutes, using a method the company is keeping secret. The program also increased the company's credibility and opened doors to financial backers.

"I personally don't feel we would have been funded unless we were part of that program," Mr. Walker says.

The entrepreneurs' dreams started more than seven years ago at a Catskills hotel owned by the World Plan Executive Council, which promotes Transcendental Meditation events. Mr. Walker and Mr. Wilks were in the top management of the hotel -- which did not serve meat -- and experimented with tofu to satisfy some guests' taste for meat.

Their experiments were so well-received that by mid-February 1985 the two men found themselves in one of the hotel's back rooms, talking about going into business. As luck would have it, when they walked from the back room into the dining room, where they were serving one of their sweet-and-sour tofu creations, they were met by a spontaneous standing ovation.

"That was it," Mr. Walker recalls. "That was our sign."

The men moved to Maryland in the summer of 1985 for familreasons and started mixing up batches of their tofu concoction. Their laboratory: a kitchen at the Talmudical Academy of Baltimore, a Jewish high school on Old Court Road.

At first, their company offered ready-to-cook packages of imitation barbecued pork, sweet-and-sour pork and beef teriyaki. The small packages touted "Ed and Andy's Original" recipes.

In two years, sales hit about $100,000 annually and the dinners were selling in health food stores and kosher shops in 44 states.

With their company just about breaking even, Mr. Walker and Mr. Wilks decided to go looking for more capital and reconsider their marketing strategies.

So in the summer of 1987 the pair shut down production and started making the rounds of venture capital firms -- including one that suggested their company enter TAP's business incubator in College Park.

Out of about 200 applicants, Mr. Walker and Mr. Wilks were among 30 business ventures to be accepted. That acceptance gave them access to multimillion-dollar laboratories and food experts, as well as instruction in accounting and management.

The tofu proposal was unusual for the incubator program, which usually handles high-tech companies. But Assistant Professor Young Choi, a faculty member who had helped develop a tofu diet for the South Korean army, took a personal interest in the company.

Mr. Choi, an expert in human nutrition, drew on his experience of providing tofu rations for Korean soldiers fighting in the Vietnam War. He taught the entrepreneurs how to reduce the marinating time for the tofu.

The TAP program also gave Mr. Walker and Mr. Wilks facilities to conduct taste tests and focus groups.

While in the program, they also decided to get out of the retail side of the business -- with its extensive distribution network and high marketing costs -- and sell to food service companies instead.

And TAP had an even more crucial role in fund-raising.

"We spent most of our time raising money," Mr. Wilks recalls. TAP "allowed us to get in front of influential people and speak." And people listened because of the backing of the university.

The pair expected to be in the incubator program for one year, but it turned into three. During that time, they had to live off loans and investments made by relatives and friends. With second and third mortgages on their homes, Mr. Walker and Mr. Wilks each has a personal debt of $50,000 to $60,000, not to

mention the loans made to the company.

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