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Small-operation tofu makers carry on

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."

"In one way of looking at things, you could say that I netted $10,000 for the effort so far. From the bright side, though, I could say that by current standards, at 'only' $59,000 in debt, I and the business as a whole are nearly debt-free."

Quick is both cheerful and cynical in his outlook.

He prefers business done on "a handshake and your word."

He believes the product is a good one. Spring Creek tofu has a richer color than most tofu products, more golden than white, and Quick said it's been described as having a tangier flavor than others. That all starts with the quality of the soybeans, he believes.

Phoenix purchases its soybeans from a family farm in Mount Vernon, Ohio, that is certified organic and has been using the same seeds since the 1970s.

Once they arrive at the plant -- really, a couple of small rooms -- soybeans are placed in large tubs to soak. They are then ground, boiled for three to four minutes in a commercial pressure cooker and strained. A sludgy byproduct of the process, called okari, is saved to sell to farmers, who use it for livestock feed.

The soy milk that results from the cooking and straining is then coagulated -- there's that unappetizing word -- by adding nigari, extracted from sea salt. The curds are strained and pressed for 40 minutes, creating the firm blocks of tofu that are high in protein, low in fat and mild in flavor.

While the process is straightforward, it requires attention by three people who work on their feet all day. Together, they produce 1,500 pounds of tofu in a week.

"It's one reason we'll never be rich and famous," Quick said.

Still, the plant currently produces enough tofu for distribution in seven states -- West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and Kentucky. Quick just broke into the market in Indianapolis, where an organic grocery store is selling the tofu.

Three Whole Foods stores, two in Columbus and one in Pittsburgh, carry the line. In Charleston, the new Hush organic market in the East End carries it, as does the Drug Emporium's Healthy Life Market. The Bluegrass Kitchen uses Spring Creek tofu in some of its menu items.

"Our focus is on making food worth eating," Quick said. "I think it's where we need to be. And some days, I'm encouraged."

Contact writer Monica Orosz at monica@dailymail.com or 304-348-4830.

 


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