For most of us, the word conjures up images of a spongy white unpalatable mass that is best left on the shelf of our local health food emporium.
But for New Jersey resident David Mintz, tofu is a magical substance that holds endless possibilities, particularly for the kosher consumer. For over thirty two years, Mintz’s Tofutti Brands has waved its magic wand, transforming soybean curd into numerous non-dairy delights, most notably, Tofutti, a non-dairy ice cream substitute available nationwide – and in thirty foreign countries.
There is no doubt that Mintz comes by his obsession for feeding people honestly. The son of a Williamsburg baker, he began his career in the food business in the mid 1960’s with a Catskills grocery store, quickly discovering that the real money was in selling prepared foods. He augmented his own recipe base by recruiting help from experienced cooks, by placing an ad in a local publication asking grandmothers to share their cooking secrets with him. Eventually, Mintz relocated to Brooklyn, opening two restaurants there, with a third on Manhattan’s East Side, in addition to a thriving catering business. While customer’s enjoyed Mintz’s menu, he was besieged with requests from those who wanted ice cream for dessert.
“Obviously I couldn’t serve ice cream after a meat based meal,” recalled Mintz. “I lost a lot of business that way. I even had people who would ask me to supply the food for an event and then they would bring in their own ice cream for dessert, but I couldn’t go along with that. I wondered what I could do to solve this problem and that was what spurred me on.”
Having read about tofu, which had long been used in China, Mintz ventured to Chinatown in order to conduct his own trials with the chameleon-like soybean curd. At first taste, tofu left a lot to be desired.
“It tasted like biting into a pillow,” reminisced Mintz.
Undaunted, Mintz began to experiment, discovering early on that while tofu made an impressive non-dairy sour cream substitute and incorporated it into numerous recipes, including quiches and dips. But turning tofu into ice cream was a much more difficult process, ultimately it took Mintz ten years.
“I would close my restaurant at nine and then would begin ‘Tofu Time’, when the ladies would work with me till two, three or even four in the morning, trying to create a passable ice cream product,” said Mintz. “There were so many disappointments and I can’t even begin to count how many times I nearly gave up.”
In fact, it was the Lubavticher Rebbe who provided Mintz with continuous encouragement during his ten-year odyssey.
“The whole block where my Manhattan restaurant was located was bought by Donald Trump in order to make way for Trump Plaza,” explained Mintz. “I kept asking for extensions, but they were razing the entire area and I had to leave. Rabbi Shlomo Riskin from the Upper West Side came into my restaurant and offered to help me out at a new location on 72nd and Broadway. I made all the arrangements and then I went to see the Rebbe for a bracha.”
The Rebbe categorically refused to give his blessing to the new restaurant.
“B’shum oyfen nisht, (Absolutely not),” declared the Rebbe.
“Why not,” queried Mintz. “It is a golden opportunity.”
“It is not for you,” responded the Rebbe.
Instead, the Rebbe encouraged Mintz to continue with his tofu experiments, assuring him divine assistance and ultimately worldwide success.
“The Rebbe was my driving force,” recalled Mintz. “He told me I could do the impossible and he urged me to have bitachon, to believe that Hashem would help me. There were many times I was ready to throw in the towel and then I would remember the Rebbe’s words. The next day, I would pick the towel up again and get back to work.”
Mintz’s earliest test runs, at the Welsh Farms plant in Long Valley, New Jersey, were nothing short of disastrous, as the Tofutti prototypes were too viscous for the ice cream machines and literally blew out of the presses, spraying geysers of the ice cream substitute all over the ceiling.