SPENCER, W.Va. -- For a process that involves the relatively unappetizing word "coagulation," the kitchen at Phoenix Organics LLC smells quite pleasant -- sort of warm, nutty and cheesy.
Tucked into a commercial kitchen space in an unassuming and unmarked building here, Bill Quick and two employees make Spring Creek tofu.
With annual sales of about $150,000, Phoenix Organics isn't competing with the largest producer of soybean curd in the world -- Japan.
Interestingly, though, the Spencer company and Japan's largest producer of tofu both buy their soybeans in Ohio.
"They can ship the soybeans to Japan, make the tofu, ship it back to the United States and still sell it cheaper than I can," Quick said. "They're all automated."
Quick prefers his smaller and hands-on operation, although he would like to increase production and profits.
"This plant has (at times) produced over $350,000 in tofu and soy foods, and has the capacity to produce over $1 million in our current product lines," he said.
Besides blocks of packaged firm tofu, Phoenix has a number of secondary products Quick has created, including five-bean chili with tofu, tofu "meatballs," "missing egg" salad and tofu burgers.
When he created a series of new UPC codes in 2009 to reflect that Spring Creek foods were gluten free, vegan, certified organic and Kosher, Quick said he went ahead and created codes for 160 products the company could sell.
"If we start to get close to that diversity in our production, sales could easily top $5 million," he said. "I'd like to see us go into whole entrees."
The "if" is a big one, he acknowledges. For one thing, packaging equipment alone is prohibitively expensive right now. For another, Quick is 58 and wondering how long he can physically be a part of the process.
He has made tofu here since 1986, when the facility was called the Spring Creek Soy Dairy, which had operated since 1979 as a worker-owned cooperative. He left a few years later but returned in 2005 when the struggling cooperative was grappling with a plan for its future. Bankruptcy and liquidation followed, and a new company was formed with Quick as managing partner.
He and a financial partner essentially are the money behind the operation, and Quick said he has drawn very little in the way of profits.
"So far, between payroll and draw, I have taken about $40,000 total for over five and half years' effort," he said. "During the same period, I have also increased my personal debt from around $9,000 to $59,000."