Founder Focus: David Knibbs of Tofoo Co.
In this week’s Founder Focus David Knibbs, Director of Tofoo Co. explains how he and his wife, Lydia, are exponentially growing the tofu market in the UK by creating innovative new products and dispelling some old and outdated myths.
What was your eureka moment?
My wife and I had always envisioned running our own business and we were passionate about finding something unique in the food industry that we could grow into a household staple.
Recognising a growing demand for meat-free; we both felt that tofu’s full potential was yet to be realised and it was an ingredient that was unjustly unloved in the UK. When we came across R&R Tofu Ltd, a small artisan tofu manufacturer for sale, we agreed it was the perfect opportunity for us.
We organised a visit to the factory, and then upon trying the product – we just knew there was a big opportunity and it was the one for us – like when you visit a new house and know this is going to be your home.
What is your elevator pitch?
Tofu is a wonderfully unique ingredient due to its rich history. As a natural product and real food ingredient, it’s not a ‘fake meat’ but rather a fantastic source of protein boasting a wealth of history.
Although tofu has been around for thousands of years, it’s an ingredient that is seen as very modern; it encapsulates how people are eating today. We’re noticing an ever-increasing shift towards ethical consumption as people become more aware of the food choices they make.
The Tofoo Co. makes its own products with just three simple ingredients; organic soybeans, water and nigari (an extract of sea salt) and is one of the UK’s best selling meat-free ingredients. We follow a strict soya bean sourcing policy; our bean to block guarantee means that all soya beans are organic, GM Free and are obtained from a sustainable source.
Tofu is not a meat substitute, as an ingredient in its own right it can be incorporated into a healthy, natural diet. It’s extremely versatile and a super soaker of flavour allowing experimentation with flavours and cuisines in the kitchen. Plus, our Tofoo is gluten free, organic, made in the UK and it comes ready to eat with no need to press.
How did you test your idea?
When we started our Tofoo Co. journey we investigated the US market which was worth £175 million and felt that there was an opportunity to replicate this success in the UK – a bit of maths told us that the UK market should sit at around £40 million. At that time, the UK market was valued at £7 million, we knew that with a nation of extremely similar palettes we could catapult tofu growth with the right product.
After securing our first opportunity with Tesco, our test turned out to be 2000 Tesco stores and the launch of our first product, Naked Tofoo. It was a huge success and we were able to hit the ground running at a pace that hasn’t stopped since.
We’re working hard to educate consumers that tofu is not an ingredient that vegans need – but in actual fact, it’s a wonderful ingredient that consumers should want.
Do you have a mentor, or are you one?
Working with a spouse often means receiving some very direct feedback on areas of the business that are operating well and those that need to improve. We share a passion and the benefit of this is that we are each other’s 24 hour sounding board.
I’ve also been lucky enough to work with a huge range of impressive businessmen and women over the years, some of whom have become investors in our business. Both Lydia and I can say that we have hugely valued the support and coaching that we have had from these individuals since our journey began five years ago.
I do find supporting start-ups and other small businesses extremely rewarding; offering advice and helping younger organisations is something that I am pleased to be able to do.
What is your plan B?
There is no Plan B – we believe we are well on our way to building what we set out to achieve when the business was in its infancy, which was to grow the category to £40m in the UK. We have just surpassed this target at £42.4 million and counting.
Not only is the meat free category continuing to grow, but Tofoo is such a versatile product it is something that veggies, vegans, flexitarians and carnivores are beginning to love and buy repeatedly. With a great team behind us and lots of exciting innovations in the pipeline, we believe Tofoo is becoming a ‘food for all’ and will soon be a staple in a UK diet. Sales of tofu will reach £100 million in the coming years.
What is the most worthwhile investment (time, energy, money) that you have made?
Market research has really helped us propel the brand by listening to the needs and wants of the consumers. By understanding a range of perspectives, and opinions on the product, we have been able to adapt The Tofoo Co. and refine it to suit the demands of the public.
In 2020 we also increased our factory capacity by 70% with the installation of a new Soy Milk Cooker from Japan, allowing us to increase turnover from £14 million per annum to almost £20 million by 2021.
What one failure are you glad you experienced?
Setbacks in business are inevitable. I have learnt from all the mistakes I’ve made in my career to date. In an earlier business venture I learnt that it is absolutely crucial to sell products in a market where there is genuine demand. Mistakes have allowed me to grow my understanding of consumer needs and desires and make wiser business decisions.
What is coming up for your Brand?
Whilst The Tofoo Co. has seen such significant growth, we know that there are still many barriers to trying tofu. Myths and misconceptions still exist – ‘it’s soggy, it’s bland’, and we’re working to break these by effectively communicating with consumers, building a strong brand and developing a product range that stands out on the shelves.
Changing these perceptions is key for encouraging non-tofu eaters to explore new foods and experiment with different ingredients, techniques and styles of cooking. We’re working hard to educate consumers that tofu is not an ingredient that vegans need – but in actual fact, it’s a wonderful ingredient that consumers should want.
We are constantly innovating and have most recently launched the UK’s first frozen tofu, making our products even more accessible to consumers. We know from research that the crispy format of our frozen ‘Original Chunkies’ makes consumers really think differently about tofu – its taste, texture and how to use it. As a product it really overcomes some of the barriers to trial and shows how truly versatile tofu can be.
Our repeat buying rates are strong and that’s because the people that try our products love them and continue to buy again and again. For this reason, sampling and consumer communication is absolutely key.