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Tofurky Plant Gobbles Steam

From naturalist to entrepreneur Turtle Island Foods, Inc. of Hood River, Oregon, was founded in 1980 by Seth Tibbott - the current President and CEO. Starting as a storefront operation in Forest Grove Oregon, Tibbott was making a traditional Indonesian cultured soy product called Tempeh - which was the backbone of the company for over two decades.

From naturalist to entrepreneur


Turtle Island Foods, Inc. of Hood River, Oregon, was founded in 1980 by Seth Tibbott - the current President and CEO. Starting as a storefront operation in Forest Grove Oregon, Tibbott was making a traditional Indonesian cultured soy product called Tempeh - which was the backbone of the company for over two decades.

        Tibbott came across the concept of Tempeh in a magazine that included an address to write to for a free spore sample. Tempeh is a boiled soybean product to which the beneficial mold, called rhizopus oligosporus, has been added. When cultured at the proper temperature, this mixture of soybeans and mold grows into a solid cake.

        Tibbott made his first batch in a jury-rigged incubator. He liked it so much that he shared it with his friends who were soon asking him to make it for them. He was incubating the Tempeh in a little refrigerator heated by a string of Christmas tree lights. He felt that there was a future in America for this product and decided to quit his day job as a teacher-naturalist and began working nights to finance his new Tempeh venture.

        In the early stages of the company, the main customers were small co-ops and natural foods stores that Tibbott delivered to directly in his car. Through the years, the product line broadened and the natural foods industry grew at a phenomenal rate. With an average growth rate of over 40% in the past three years, Turtle Island Foods products are now sold in such stores as Whole Foods, Wild Oats, Publix, Safeway and Trader Joes.

Catalyst for success

Turtle Island’s sudden growth hinged on the 1995 development of a product called Tofurky. Tofurky is an alternative to turkey that allows vegetarians to participate in family feasts. It’s a combination of organic tofu and vital wheat gluten - giving it a meat-like texture. Turtle Island has even developed a product called Tofurky Feast. In addition to the 26 oz. roast, it has a package of vegetarian giblet gravy, some cranberry dumplings and a ‘Wish Stick’ - which is a vegetarian alternative to the wishbone.

Meatless meat processing

According to Jaime Athos, Turtle Island Foods’ Operations Manager, “We use the same processing equipment that a meat processing plant would use. Basically, the Tofurky roast is a very large diameter, short in length, sausage. So, when we saw a need to add new products, we looked to the meat industry. We asked, ‘how does the turkey industry fill in the lean times outside the holiday period? What do they do to keep themselves in business and keep rolling product out the door?’ What they do is make deli sliced products. Our sausage is cooked in a casing and then peeled and sliced ultra-thin. We then vacuum-package it.”

Starving for steam

From the outset, Turtle Island was using steam jacketed kettles to produce their Tempeh - so steam has always been an integral part of their process. Athos recalls how Turtle Island’s steam production increased with its growth, “With the move to Hood River, Seth purchased a new boiler. It was a 9.5HP bent tube atmospheric boiler. As the sales volume ramped up, he added another a 9.5HP bent tube boiler. A little later, he added a 25HP bent tube and ultimately a 50HP in addition to that.”

        “We were starving for steam. The Tofurky is cooked in steam ovens or houses. We were finding that though we have four steam houses in our plant, we were actually limited to running only two of those at the same time. Our existing boiler capacity just could not keep up with the steam demands.”

        “Plus, we have a clean-in-place system that requires quite a bit of steam power because it involves heating up a large volume of water with sanitizing solution in it and circulating that through long pipes that run throughout the plant. It definitely puts a demand on our steam system.”

        “As is probably true of a lot of food manufacturing facilities, the steam demand fluctuates up and down throughout the day. I think that is where our boilers were letting us down. The ability to ramp up quickly to meet that kind of demand just wasn’t there.”

Weighing the alternatives

Turtle Island Foods had two options - add another boiler to increase capacity beyond 95HP or replace all the boilers with a different kind of steam producing technology that would basically have the same capacity. “Adding more capacity with the existing technology meant adding another bent tube atmospheric style boiler. The ones that we had in the past ran very well and we had a pretty good history with them. But, what we found was that it seemed we had all the capacity in terms of horsepower that we needed. But bent tube atmospheric boilers just weren’t able to respond to the kind of up and down demand that we were subjecting them to,” described Athos.

Environmental factors

The effect of the boiler on the environment was another factor. Turtle Island’s company culture is committed to environmental causes. All of its electricity is purchased through wind power programs, for example. Fitting nicely with its concerns is the state of Oregon’s business energy tax credits program. It works as an incentive to businesses to purchase energy efficient equipment. Atmospheric style boilers would not qualify for the program.

The solution

Jaime Athos continues, “There were several features we were comparing amongst the boilers we investigated. One was the recovery time. That was pretty critical for us because of the up and down nature of the demands on our system. Another one was energy efficiency. As a growing company, it is easy to just add more and more capacity in an inefficient way. But in terms of our goals, it makes a lot more sense to think long term. You pay a little bit more upfront and recover that additional initial investment over the long term.”

        According to Athos, Turtle Island found the answer when it compared the bent water tube atmospheric boilers to the straight water tube low NOx Miura boiler. “The Miuras really seemed to be designed for our kind of application.” Plus, Miura Boiler’s LX Gas/Low NOx series of high or low pressure steam boilers maintain NOx levels at less than 20 PPM at 3% O2. The engineered broad flame spread produces a controlled burn that results in low NOx.

Increased efficiency, increased savings

The biggest benefit has been to the bottom line. Athos has seen a sizable drop in Turtle Island’s energy usage, “I believe that the system efficiency of the bent tube atmospheric boilers that we were looking at was around 75-80 percent, only at the top of its range. The Miura boiler that we have now is at least ten to fifteen percent better than that, consistently. That’s substantial. As natural gas prices increase, we are even more pleased with the decision that we made. The return on our investment won’t be long in coming.”

        The fuel-to-steam boiler efficiency of Miura boilers remains consistently high (85%+) at all steam loads from 35% to 100%. Since steam load is constantly fluctuating, Miura’s consistent efficiency provides consistent energy savings.

Fuel savings

From November 2004 to November 2005, Turtle Island Foods cooked 45.6% more product. In that period, the price of natural gas went up 25%. To its great relief, due to the in-service efficiency of the new boiler, the increase in Turtle Island’s gas usage was only 12.2%. So, they increased productivity per therm by 29.8% and decreased natural gas usage on a per-pound-of-product basis by 22.9%.

Consistent texture...consistent pricing

Athos adds, “I would say that the Miura is recovering steam pressure within less than a minute of a major demand being placed on our steam system. It’s able to actually increase the pressure of the steam lines when you turn on a steam house; whereas with our older system, you’re talking about fifteen to twenty minutes of low steam pressure while the boilers struggled to catch up to demand. It really had a profound affect on the consistency of our product. Obviously if demand is rising and falling, and the steam pressure is rising and falling, it makes it difficult to get really consistent cooking of your product. All kinds of quality problems result from that.”

        With the elimination of these problems and the energy savings realized, Turtle Island Foods has been able to hold the line on their products’ pricing.

On the horizon

Turtle Island Foods is about to expand into the remainder of its building, which will bring the company up to just under thirty thousand square feet. They will be adding more new equipment, confident that the Muira boiler will still be able to keep up with growing demand.