Jaime Athos is the president and CEO of Tofurky, one of the oldest, most successful, and most iconic plant-based companies in the game.
He’s also a neuroscientist with a PhD from the University of Washington, and he never expected to be where he is today.
We chatted with Jaime about his journey from academia to plant-based advocacy, and what’s motivated him along the way!
E: You studied to be a neuroscientist. What changed your course and led you to become the president of Tofurky?
J: I never imagined myself abandoning my lifelong interest in a science career, and I never imagined Tofurky would represent anything other than a fond memory of summers spent making tempeh to earn money for college.
Ultimately though, I became disenchanted with the politics and careerism of science, and the frustratingly slow and incremental impact it generally has on the world, so I began to consider other options.
By that time my family’s business, Tofurky, was beginning to really take off, and they needed a person with technical aptitude to fill a role in their quality assurance department. That turned out to be my first step back into the business. In retrospect, making the move to Tofurky was one of the best decisions I have ever made. It has been an absolute privilege to work here, and it is so gratifying to work for a company that embodies my own personal values and that makes the world a better place in tangible and immediate ways.
Every day we get to make tasty, nourishing food that empowers people to make better choices for farm animals, for the environment, and for their own personal health, and I can’t imagine another career ever giving me this much personal satisfaction.
E: What is your motivation for focusing on food?
J: Food plays such an important role in our lives in so many ways. Food is the focal point of many gatherings, and whether it’s a holiday meal with family and friends or a meeting to hammer out a business deal with work colleagues, food is often what brings us together.
And when you think about all the things that define a culture, cuisine is high on the list. Food reflects not only the aesthetic preferences of a given place, but also the moral and ethical ideals to which it subscribes. Increasing awareness of the inherent cruelty of animal agriculture has required us all to reflect on whether the standard American diet is truly reflective of our own ethical ideals, and a marketplace that offers more alternative choices has given us the opportunity to more easily live up to those ideals.
Beyond their social importance, decisions around what foods we eat also define much of our impact on the world as consumers. While transportation has long dominated conversations about environmental sustainability and greenhouse gas emissions, it is now understood that what we choose to put on our plates and into our bodies may be of equal or even greater importance.
[Editor's Note: The UN reports that greenhouse gas emissions from animal agriculture exceed that of the entire transportation sector]
While I can imagine a lot of ways to make the world a better place, the huge importance of food in our everyday lives and the market forces at play in the food industry make it particularly attractive to me as a way to drive change.
E: What has been your most memorable moment with the company?
J: I’ll tell you two stories that serve as bookends on my time here at Tofurky:
The first paycheck I ever earned with this company (which was called Turtle Island Foods back then) was in 1992, when my job was to help load bags of soybeans onto a truck that was moving our business from its old home in the cafeteria kitchen at a former grade school to the new digs as one of six tenants in an old cannery warehouse in Hood River, Oregon.
At that point the business was so small that it was inconceivable that we would ever need all 5,000 square feet at the new facility, so we sublet about half of it to a yoga studio.
Over time the business grew, and as the other tenants moved out we took on more and more space until we finally bought the entire building. By 2013 we had to build an additional manufacturing plant, which is a gorgeous 44,000 square-foot structure with solar panels, rainwater harvesting, an electric car charging station, and all of the other sustainability features we could think of.
To celebrate the opening of our new building we put on an event we called Tofurkyfest, with live music and invited speakers from across the country to entertain and educate several hundred friends and neighbors.
At that moment, during Tofurkyfest, it was impossible not to reflect back on how far the company had come, from a few people moving the entire business in a half-full U-Haul, to its current situation encompassing well over 100,000 square feet across several buildings. And it was impossible not to respect what my step-father Seth Tibbott had accomplished in starting this company with so little and turning it into such an engine for good, providing jobs for so many people, providing good products and new holiday traditions for so many appreciative and supportive customers, and helping to push our culture in a more humane direction.
E: What one or two people, books, or films have most influenced or inspired you in your work?
J: One book that really stands out for me is The Responsible Company, which was written by Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard, and his longest-term employee, Vincent Stanley.
I was really impressed by the vision that they articulated for their company, which I would boil down to making good products in the least harmful way possible while also using the business to help tackle environmental problems. But beyond that vision, what I was really impressed by was their honesty about where their current business fell short of the ambitions they had for it. Like many people these days, I often feel overwhelmed by the marketing and spin that seems to saturate our modern existence, but a company that is willing to not only sing the praises of their newest and best products but also to share how they are failing to live up to their own ideals is a breath of fresh air.
[Editor's Note: Speaking of new products, Tofurky has released more than 14 in the last year-and-a-half alone!]
We all would like to believe that we are good people and that we are having a positive influence on the world, but actually going through the process of introspection to evaluate what you do and how you might do even better takes courage.
Ultimately, this book was instrumental in my decision to have Tofurky become a certified B-Corp in 2015.
[Editor's Note: Certified B Corporations have met or exceeded a set of standards for the treatment of their workers, the sourcing of their supplies, their engagement with local communities, and their impact on the environment.]
The auditing process was so comprehensive that it served as a great baseline for evaluating our business practices holistically. And, more important than discovering our strengths, revealing our weaknesses has given real focus to how we will spend our time and energy to become an even better Tofurky Company in the years ahead.
E: If you could be known for one thing, what would you want it to be?
J: This probably will sound corny, but I would be perfectly happy not being known for anything so long as Tofurky is recognized for all the good that it does.
Even if you are skeptical of market forces and capitalism, you have to credit Tofurky as an example of how a business can be a force for change.
“Tofurky” is a quirky, funny brand, and some people have even told me they don’t think such an "unserious" name is appropriate given our serious mission of reducing animal suffering and environmental devastation. But we aren’t in the business of shame or guilt, and if somebody buys Tofurky for "unserious reasons" – because they find our products delicious and satisfying – and not necessarily for any ethical reasons, then we are still doing our job.
We are here to engage in that subtler form of advocacy and influence – by enticing people to make better choices by making those choices easy.
E: What product or initiative are you most excited about right now? [Bonus Q!]
J: I am probably most excited by my role on the Board of the Plant Based Foods Association!
The PBFA is a relatively new trade group, but we already have 55 member companies (of which Tofurky is one) and dozens of affiliates [of which GFI is one]. This group is comprised of companies that are involved in making and selling plant-based alternatives to meat, eggs, and dairy.
Its very existence is the herald of a transforming food and grocery culture in our country.
Tofurky has always been less interested in its own individual success than it has been in contributing to a robust, plant-based economy. We have long seen ourselves as stewards not only of our own brand but also of the entire plant-based alternative foods sector.
We don’t feel like we have competitors per se, we have peers, many of whom who are working toward the same goals that we are.
The PBFA finally presents us with a formal structure so that we can collaborate with our peers and speak with a unified voice in the media and in policy discussions with our governmental representatives.
Plant-based foods already represent one of the hottest trends on grocery shelves and restaurant menus, and this is in spite of some glaring inequities in our current system which favor animal agriculture through direct and indirect subsidies as well as dietary guidelines and nutritional policies that obscure the health and environmental benefits of plant-based diets.
E: Thanks for the time, Jaime—and for making it easier to eat health-friendly, animal-friendly, and climate-friendly foods!
To learn more about how GFI supports plant-based innovators, visit our website.