Rising tide lifts all boats: Conversation between two plant-based pioneers

Especially in the era of fierce competition in business, even in the plant-based sector, it is truly rare to find two competitors as openly friendly and supportive as Seth Tibbott of Tofurky and our own founder, Wally Fry.

The two had a chance to renew acquaintances when Seth traveled to Australia on business in November and met up with his friend of many years in two comfortable armchairs with Noosa Harbour as a backdrop. The spirit of collaboration is very much alive with the two founders and plant-based pioneers. There is a common belief that the two brands are aligned in purpose and in values and it’s refreshing when competing businesses with the same mission not only get along but provide each other advice and support.

Their respective stories are similar as well. When Wally and Seth started making their foods there was very little interest in veganism and therefore very few plant-based options in the marketplace.

An ecologist at heart, Seth started Tofurky as a response to having little eat over the holidays other than salad and “maybe a few mashed potatoes.” Having very little money, he rented four trees from a neighbor for $25 a month and set about building a treehouse in which to live, all the while developing what would eventually become a worldwide brand. More than a few times during the lean years, Seth’s tax accountant would ask, “how are you still in business?”.

However, Seth was driven and committed to his mission, and the first Tofurky holiday product was introduced in 1995. Immediately it was a hit, selling 500 units. In an instant, Seth went from his phone never ringing to repeated calls from mainstream news outlets such as the New York Times, Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal. Seth and Tofurky had arrived.  The business has continued to grow over the years and today, the company’s food products are in 25,000 stores worldwide.

Wally also started his company from humble beginnings. His start in the business came, ironically, in buying and selling livestock. Times were lean, and Wally lived in a concrete-walled house with one room, with no bedroom, no bathroom and no running water. “I had to go to the river to get my bathing and drinking water,” Wally recalls.

But something happened along the way to the one-time meat eater. He eventually met his wife Debbie, a life-long vegetarian, and their first child, Tammy, who would ask why chicken drumsticks were called “drumsticks” from an early age, was vegetarian from birth. It was during this time that also Wally started to research the environmental effects of factory farming.

Things came to a head when Wally, now in the construction business, built a 1,000-cell piggery in South Africa. After its completion, Wally returned to the piggery months later and the conditions in which he saw the animals were housed would leave an indelible mark on him. “I was ashamed at what I had done,” Wally admits.

Wally immediately became a vegetarian (and later a vegan) but decided if he would go the meatless route he had to develop products that had the same taste and texture that their meat-eating counterparts enjoyed so, as Wally puts it, “I didn’t feel cheated.”

Propelled by his feverish enthusiasm, Wally started mixing ingredients in his family’s kitchen in stainless steel pots and a two-plate burner. The products caught on and friends, family members and locals began buying those initial Fry’s products. Eventually, Wally realized he needed a factory to service the exploding number of stores looking to carry his products.

From these humble beginnings, both companies have flourished. Tofurky sold its 5 millionth vegan holiday roast this past Thanksgiving and Fry’s is coming to the U.S. this winter after already conquering 37 countries around the world.

The spirit of cooperation and coexistence is born out of both men’s understanding that the plant-based food sector today is far different than the one they knew even ten years ago. They understand that their respective companies need not be greedy in competition with each other. Both companies want quality vegan products to succeed, both for altruistic reasons and also because it’s an easier sell to be a part of a category that is spiralling upwards. Both men have morphed from begging for shelf space to fielding pleading calls from supermarket buyers for more products and lines.

The aphorism that a rising tide lifts all boats certainly applies to Wally and Seth. Both men share an intrinsic belief that the world needs to go plant-based for health, environmental and animal welfare reasons. Both believe that all plant-based companies will benefit as we move from a meat-centric diet to one rooted in plants. And rather than seeing each other as competitors, Wally Fry and Seth Tibbott have a deep-seeded belief in partnership for a greater good.