"It's the first time - to our knowledge at least - that tofu of any description's launched in the frozen category," said Knibbs, after recording the podcast. "What I would call block tofu doesn't work terribly well in frozen, because it's got quite a high water content, so when you freeze it, it changes the structure of it.
"We've been experimenting around some value-added products that we can launch there. We're going to launch some breaded and battered products, the first one of which will be what we call an 'Original Chunky', which in shape will remind you a little bit of a fish finger, but we never use meat or fish language when it comes to our products.
"The original one has got a delicate flavour. It will appeal perhaps a little bit more to the family market and will build on the brand franchise that we have done well within the chilled category."
One product will launch in January into major retailers, coinciding with what has now become the regular annual celebration Veganuary. The Tofoo Co claimed sales of £1m in January 2020 alone. "There are two more products that will launch and those are going to be more - let's call them bitesize battered products - and they will launch during early to mid spring."
The January launch would have a recommended retail price of £2.25 for eight breaded fingers. The bitesize products will come in 280g packs.
Sales would focus on major retail channels first, although Knibbs added: "We can see quite a lot of foodservice applications. Obviously that market's a little bit up and down with lockdowns, but it will open up again. They are very healthy products. They are all greens and ambers when it comes to the traffic light system, so we think they will have very broad appeal in that segment and convenience as well."
He said the North-Yorkshire-based Tofoo Co was leading the way for tofu in the chilled aisle, but there was a significant opportunity to expand its reach. "The biggest opportunity for tofu arguably is expanding the overall consumer franchise. We have still got a limited number of households in the UK who have discovered tofu. We're still only talking to 3% of the population. Moving into the frozen category will give us access in a more mainstream way.
"There's a load of people out there with what we describe as tofu phobia - fear of something I have never tried before. Changing the format and putting it in a format that perhaps is a little more familiar will hopefully break down some of that stigma."
Speaking to Food Manufacture in the podcast about how the growth the Tofoo Co had achieved since its 2016 launch was fuelling a recruitment drive, Knibbs said: “We started out the business was turning over £600,000 – this year it will be pretty close to £16m – and its throughput has gone from three tonnes of tofu a week to 80 tonnes a week,” he explained.
“Therefore you need a skill base that recognises that and so we’ve been adding skills to what we do. That’s why we’re looking for a head of technical and a quality manager to further give us some additional skills to take us to the next phase of growth.”
The Tofoo Co’s growth has been set against a backdrop of success for tofu in the UK. According to Kantar figures for the 52 w/e 6 September 2020, tofu had grown 67.1% to £11.9m, the strongest growth in any meat alternative sub sector. As a result, according to that data, the value of the tofu market outstrips meat-free sausages and is only marginally behind meat-free burgers. Knibbs believed it could reach as much as £100m.
£100m sector target
“We’ve achieved an awful lot in four years and with all the growth that’s going on, £100m is achievable,” he added. “If you want to get to those sorts of numbers you need a great team around you. We’ve got a great team already, but selectively you add skills to that to further develop the business.”
The business has even continued to grow despite the global coronavirus pandemic. Thanks to more people being forced to stay at home, retail sales of its products have risen, supported by a rise in scratch-cooking and consumer experimentation.
“At the heart of that is this sense that consumers used to experiment out of home, so if they were going to choose something new then they’d perhaps go to a restaurant and try a new dish,” Knibbs continued.
“They haven’t been able to do that so they been buying more experimental cooking sauces and scratch-cooking more and Tofu is the ingredient in meat-free.
‘The preferred cooking ingredient’
“If you look at the meat-free ingredients segment, half of all those sales are tofu, so the preferred cooking ingredient for meat-free eaters is tofu. Scratch-cooking and people experimenting at home has benefitted tofu, I would argue, better than anybody else.”
Despite the success of tofu during the pandemic, Knibbs argued that more could be done to raise the profile of the ingredient in the eyes of consumers.
To this end, the Tofoo Co has launched head-first into new product development, with new innovations such as frozen options and flavoured tofu soon to hit store shelves.
“You’ve got to engage more consumers. There will be some for whom that big white block is a bit daunting, so we continue to innovate,” he concluded.