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Toby’s Troubles Are Our Own

June 20th, 2008 by dk

Published Friday, June 20, 2008 in The Register-Guard.

Toby Alves has a problem. As demand for natural foods industry has expanded, Toby’s Tofu Paté has become available far beyond this little corner of the world where it all began. But what do you call it for people who are not already familiar with it? Tofu is viewed with suspicion by meat-eating shoppers, and paté reminds many vegetarians of liver. Explaining to others what seems normal in Eugene is something we all must do. Toby’s troubles are our own.

Beginning a week from today, Eugene will host more visitors from farther away for more days than ever before. Thousands will converge here for the 2008 Olympic Track and Field Trials. These athletes, journalists and fans will arrive with few preconceptions about this place, except for some notions about Nike and Pre and Tracktown USA. It’s a good time to rehearse how we talk about ourselves. What we eat is a fine place to begin.

But first, let’s back up. In 1984, Toby Alves was invited to a potluck. She whipped up a salad that could have been interpreted as a vegan homage to that ultimate comfort food, egg salad. It was an instant hit. She wheedled a $200 loan from a reluctant banker and upgraded her home kitchen to receive a commercial license. Toby’s Tofu Palace was born.

She called her recipe “tofu salad,” even though that term invited confusion with a mock cottage cheese being sold to vegetarians at the time. Word-of-mouth spread among health food stores. But in 1985, Safeway came calling. Toby wasn’t sure she wanted to sell to Safeway, but she decided her product should be available where most shoppers shop.

Within a year, the “tofu salad” confusion had to be resolved, so “tofu paté” was born. Keep in mind, the name changed, but not the recipe. “I thought it sounded classy,” Toby says.

Zoom ahead two decades. Jonah Alves, Toby’s teenage son from her home kitchen days, is now the 38-year old CEO for Toby’s Family Foods. California and Washington are clamoring for what has remained an Oregon original. How far and wide will the appetite for Toby’s potluck recipe spread? That’s anybody’s guess.

Twelve months ago, Toby, Jonah and Vice President for Sales and Marketing Sheldon Rubin began preparing for that wider distribution. Marketing consultants, friends and colleagues all suggested that “paté” was a double strike against their company’s core values: it smacked of meat imitation, and also elitism. “Paté” had to go.

“This was hard for me,” admits Toby. “I like being unique.”

Beginning this August, Toby’s packaging will call its product a “gourmet spread.” Meantime, they have taken the interim step of using special containers that warn customers that new packaging is coming. It promises a new look for the same recipe coming from the same family business, but it also reminds customers that “change is good.”

The popularity of the spread will continue to spread. It’s only a matter of time before Midwestern grocers begin requesting Toby’s for their shelves, but with packaging that mentions neither “paté” nor “tofu.” What will Toby call her recipe for Iowa shoppers? N’Egg Salad? I’m sure the conversation with food industry experts has already begun.

This afternoon will offer one of those opportunities. Toby and Sheldon are hosting a petit lunch for the Portland Culinary Alliance, whose members include food writers, cookbook authors, cooking teachers, chefs, marketers, and food manufacturers. The PCA has organized a “field trip” this weekend to meet many of the natural food stalwarts who call this corner of the world home. It’s not the Olympics, but they’ll be racing to meet as many champions for the natural foods industry as they can.

Not that accessibility is an issue. That $200 loan to upgrade a kitchen has become a multi-million dollar business, but when I called Toby’s Family Foods this week to confirm some details for this column, it was Toby who answered the phone.


Don Kahle ( was owner and publisher of Comic News until 2004. He is now a marketing, media and management consultant for small and civic-minded companies. He blogs right here.

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