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.
After approximately a dozen test runs, the Welsh Farms board was ready to bid a fond farewell to David Mintz and Tofutti, but Mintz begged for one final chance to perfect his product. While the Welsh Farms board were ready to turn down Mintz’s request, Welsh Farms president Earle Holsapple outvoted them and agreed to give Tofutti one last try.
“It must have been maybe 3:30 or 4 a.m. when we gave it our last shot,” remembered Mintz. “There we are, saying Tehillim, and the needle goes into the red zone. The machine is vibrating. The building is vibrating, until finally the needle moves back into the safe area. We stopped saying Tehillim and the needle went straight back into the red zone. It was like kriyas Yam Suf, when the Tofutti finally came out. We had tears in our eyes.”
In its infancy, Mintz marketed Tofutti to health food stores, but as word of the frozen non-dairy delicacy spread, orders began pouring in and by 1983, Mintz took the company public. The company has continued to skyrocket.
“At one point I went back to the Lubavitcher Rebbe to thank him for his guidance and encouragement,” said Mintz. “The Rebbe said to me ‘Don’t thank me, we are partners.’ The Rebbe’s secretary told me that in all his years, he never heard the Rebbe say those words to anyone before. Somehow word of what the Rebbe had said got around and suddenly there were so many buy orders on the stock exchange for Tofutti that the SEC halted trading on the stock for half an hour and called us to find out what had happened to generate so many buy orders.”
Not content to rest on his laurels, Mintz continued to experiment and today Tofutti pints are available in Vanilla, Chocolate Supreme, Wildberry Supreme, Vanilla Almond Bark, Vanilla Fudge, Chocolate Cookie Crunch and Better Pecan. Tofutti Cuties, snack size ice cream sandwiches, are produced in an assortment of flavors including Vanilla, Cookies ‘N Cream, Totally Vanilla, Strawberry Wave, Chocolate Wave, Chocolate, Peanut Butter, Mint Chocolate Chip, Coffee Break, Wild Berry, Blueberry Wave and Key Lime. Mintz’s trademark sense of humor is evident in the names of all of his products: Marry Me Dessert Bars contain vanilla Tofutti dipped in a chocolate coating, Yours Truly are chocolate and cookie covered Tofutti filled ice cream cones and Mint by Mintz Pops features mint tofutti dipped in chocolate, among others. Mintz was honored last month by Prepared Foods Magazine, a leading trade publication, with the Excellence in Innovation Award for Tofutti’s new and improved Hooray Bar, a vanilla tofutti bar covered in a chocolate and brown rice crunch coating, completely sweetened with stevia, an all natural, zero calorie sweetener.
“I did something that Coke and Pepsi haven’t done,” declared Mintz with pride. “They are still trying to figure out how to work stevia into their products.”
While Mintz, who has no formal science background, contemplated studying food science at one point in his life, he was advised by the Lubavitcher Rebbe not to do so.
“The Rebbe told me that studying will limit me, will give me borders, saying ‘you go where no one else goes,’” explained Mintz. “But I really haven’t done anything special. I am only the messenger. It is only with G-d’s help that I have been successful.”
Tofutti brands incorporates numerous other products in its growing non-dairy empire, much to the delight of the millions of lactose intolerant people worldwide as well as kosher consumers who are continually on the prowl for non-dairy alternatives in order to expand their culinary horizons. Tofutti Brand’s Better Than Cream Cheese comes in five different flavors and soy-cheese slices are available in both Mozzarella and Cheddar, making kosher cheeseburgers a very real possibility. Sour Supreme, a sour cream alternative, is available in three different varieties, including Guacamole, and one of the latest products to roll off the Tofutti production line is Better than Ricotta, a ricotta alternative that was many years in the making.
With a ricotta product under his belt, Mintz confesses to getting recipes from his Italian neighbors and using them to expand the horizons of kosher cooking.
“I was on a cooking show with Donna Hanover and I made cannoli,” reported Mintz. “She tasted the dessert and said to me, ‘How does a nice Jewish boy know how to make cannoli like this?’”
Other Tofutti brand offerings include a tempting array of completely non-dairy frozen foods such as mini and jumbo ravioli, pizza, soft chewy chocolate chip, oatmeal raisin and peanut butter cookies and the aptly titled Mintz’s Blintzes. Currently, Mintz is working on frozen yogurt and toaster ravioli as well as a vegetable protein alternative to tofu for those who are allergic to soybeans.
The president of Lubavitch on the Palisades in Tenafly, Mintz routinely hosts numerous guests for Friday night meals to taste test his recipes, which are apparently so delicious that invitations to Mintz’s house are highly coveted.
“I have twenty to twenty five people Friday night for Oneg Shabbat at my house,” says Mintz with obvious pleasure. “I serve pareve ravioli, manicotti. People can’t believe what they are eating.”
Ever passionate about his cooking, Mintz hopes to one day publish a cookbook, with proceeds going to tzeddakah.
“I don’t believe in complex recipes,” explains Mintz. “I want the one, two three recipes, things that are basic but beautiful. I make a Chilean Sea Bass with craisins and mango that I cook on a low flame with onions and garlic. The aroma alone could stop traffic. My neighbors tell me they love Fridays because they love the smells that come wafting out of my house.”
While Mintz has received numerous expressions of gratitude from both kosher consumers and lactose intolerant customers who continue to patronize his ever growing line of products, the most memorable response he got was from a customer whose mother was dying of cancer and who credits Mintz with extending her life by an additional two years.
“I get a call from a man who tells me he loves my product and has been a loyal customer from the very beginning,” reported Mintz. “He tells me that his mother was at Sloan Kettering and she couldn’t keep any food down. She was being fed intravenously, but how long can a person live like that? She was losing weight, becoming skin and bones when one of the doctors suggested she try eating vanilla Tofutti. She loved it, it had nutrients and protein and she was able to keep it down. She stopped losing weight and the color came back to her cheeks. He said to me ‘Thank you so much for giving my mother those extra two years.’ That call put me in a cold sweat. I got off the phone and I sat at my desk, completely unable to move. I couldn’t believe that I had made such a difference in someone’s life and I attribute it all to the words of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, telling me to have faith, to have bitachon.”
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