Soy Production Boosts Co-op


Back in the days when board meetings were held in the General Manager’s sauna, Oryana Natural Foods Market—a community co-op since 1973—experienced the birth of its tofu-making operations.

The year was 1981, and what began as a home-based operation, continues to this day to be a thriving, multi-faceted soy production business located on the co-op’s premises. In fact, with the recent launch of what we now call Oryana Soyworks, we’ve elevated our soy production operation to a whole new level. Now, with a unique identity and its very own label, Soyworks is poised to soar to even new heights. But before we delve into this most recent manifestation of the Oryana soy world, let’s go back to the beginning.

The year was 1981 and the original Oryana tofu makers were on a mission to feed people a healthy protein-packed alternative to meat; tofu was the up and coming natural star. They knew the ins and outs of making tofu, having made and served it on a regular basis to their families and friends. For them, producing tofu for the masses would be a piece of cake, or excuse me, a chunk of bean curd. However, there was one piece missing: the equipment to make tofu on a large scale.

Lucky for us, just at this time our sister co-op, the Grain Train, located just 50 miles away, was selling its tofu-making equipment. Oryana’s general manager seized the opportunity and, with a loan of $5000 from his father, we bought the equipment. Thus began Oryana’s official venture into the world of soy production. (Ironically, Oryana has been selling tofu to the Grain Train on and off for the last 25 years.)

When it comes to soy, it seems we’re a pioneering bunch here at Oryana because just one year later, two member-owners began experimenting with making tempeh. We quickly became known as the place to purchase fresh, handcrafted tofu and tempeh.

Education and outreach during 1980s

The decade of the 1980s was filled with education and outreach about the benefits of tofu and tempeh. One board member, Kaptain Kerry Krcek, regularly took his Travelin’ Tempeh Road Show to fairs and festivals all over Michigan. Our creativity steered us into some pretty imaginative soy food inventions including peanut butter tofu pie, tofu cheesecake, and the oh so famous tofu turkey, with both light and dark meat, complete with cauliflower drumsticks wrapped in filo dough. Those were the days!

During this time, both tofu and tempeh were being delivered to at least six locations all over Michigan. We were even selling tofu to some local Chinese restaurants. With the benefit of hindsight we can say that we probably won’t be making the tofu turkey with the cauliflower drumsticks very soon again. But selling our bulk tofu to local Chinese restaurants and distributing it across the state are two ventures we could seriously consider once more. Our challenge now is to grow into these ventures while maintaining the integrity of a high quality, handcrafted, artisan product.

The ebb and flow of soy

Now, 26 years later, Soyworks continues to prosper. Over the years, we’ve been able to weather the ebb and flow of soy’s popularity. In 1999, Soyworks was given a real boost with the FDA’s announcement that 25 grams of soy protein a day, as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol, may reduce the risk of heart disease. Considering that four ounces of firm tofu contains 13 grams of soy protein, our tofu sales skyrocketed during this time. Recently, we’ve been able to weather the “dark side of soy,” the belief that unless the soybean is fermented, it should not be eaten.

We, however, ascribe to the philosophy of Cynthia Lair, Bastyr University Nutrition Faculty and author of the excellent book Feeding the Whole Family. She states: “The traditional Japanese diet, through centuries of trial and error, found ways to use soybeans in a healthful manner. They did not invent or eat soy protein isolate. They mainly ate carefully crafted, fermented soy products in small amounts. The fermentation process deactivates the phytic acid and renders the bean much more digestible. Tamari, shoyu, miso, and tempeh add flavor and digestibility to meals when served in small amounts. Though not fermented, tofu also doesn’t affect mineral absorption because of the way it’s made. Tofu is made from cooked and strained soybeans that have coagulant added. Luckily, the bean’s phytic acid is mostly found in the fiber, which is discarded when tofu is made.”

Key ingredients

A key ingredient in the production of tofu is the coagulant. At Oryana, we use (and always have) nigari, a white powder produced from seawater and composed primarily of magnesium chloride and imported from Japan. Nigari is a traditional ingredient that has been used for hundreds of years in Japan and China. Eric Bartell, Oryana’s Soyworks Manager for the last 21 years, remembers the day when Japanese tourists visiting our Co-op requested to see him in person. Eric (whom we fondly call SoyBoy) still vividly recalls that day. “I came out of the soy production room and then received the highest compliment I ever have about our tofu. The Japanese visitors compared it to what they call ‘mountain tofu,’ a superior tofu handcrafted in Japan. I was very honored.”

Perhaps it’s the certified organic facility in which the tofu is made. (Oryana was the first co-op in the country to become a certified organic retailer in 2002.) Or maybe it’s the filtered water and nigari that are used in the manufacturing process. Or maybe it’s because we use certified organic soybeans grown right here in Michigan. It’s probably all of the above. But one thing is certain. Of the various tofu and tempeh makers throughout the history of Oryana’s soy production, all of them have infused the production process itself with love. One early tofu maker said: “Food is energy and when it’s made with love, care, and consciousness, you can tell the difference.”

Marc David in his excellent book Nourishing Wisdom explains: “Of all the ingredients in a meal, the ‘subtle’ ingredients are the least observable but often the most easily felt.” To this day, the subtle, yet key ingredient of love, is fundamental to our soy production. Just ask SoyBoy.

The Soyworks department

Currently we sell almost six tons of tofu a year and about 1200 pounds of tempeh. In 2006, total sales of Oryana Soyworks products amounted to $45,000. This year we estimate total sales to be $67,000. Soyworks functions as its own department with three full-time-equivalent staff. It has its own display case where all of the Soyworks products are merchandised. Transfers from the store are minimal and handled like any other department.

Our price per pound of tofu is $2.49, up from $1.89 20 years ago. We offer our tofu both in bulk and prepackaged. In bulk we carry plain, Italian, and dill tofu. We also carry teriyaki ginger and curry tofu pre-packaged. We are considering creamy dill and Italian white sauce as new flavors for our packaged tofu. Our Jamaican jerk tempeh and BBQ tempeh have been very popular. And our tempeh Reuben has been a mainstay since the beginning.

Oryana Soyworks is a key component of who we are. You could say the production of tofu and tempeh is something in our genes. We’ve continuously made it for the last 26 years and anticipate we always will. We are proud of the fact that we use a centuries-old technique and handcraft our products in small batches. As this goes to print, Oryana is putting the finishing touches on our new expanded space and finalizing plans for our grand opening. We’ve doubled our retail square footage from 4500 to almost 9000 square feet, have 45 full-time-equivalent staff, and project that our total sales will be $6.8 million this year. We expect that Soyworks will continue to be a shining star when we open the doors to our new expanded space.


Joan D’Argo is editor of the Oryana Natural Foods Market newsletter in Traverse City, Michigan and works in the co-op’s education and outreach department ([email protected]).

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