Joy of soy: Eugene firm finds soaring demand for its soy-based frozen desserts
By Bill Neill
The nation's sudden infatuation with healthy food appears to be working wonders for the sales receipts of Turtle Mountain, a small but fast-growing Eugene company that makes frozen soy-based desserts.
After years of limping along financially, experimenting with ingredients and trying to make inroads into the freezer sections of grocery chains, Turtle Mountain said sales of its Organic Soy Delicious dessert and other soy lines are burgeoning.
The company last year neared $20 million in sales, and this year will top that, founder and president Mark Brawerman said.
Turtle Mountain's experience shows how national taste trends can almost break - and then suddenly make - a company.
Soy-based desserts have long been marginal, shunned by many consumers.
"We don't have the luxury of years and years of consumers consuming soy products," said John Tucker, Turtle Mountain's marketing director. "Their palates are accustomed to dairy."
But Turtle Mountain and its rivals have inched closer to replicating ice cream tastes and texture. That's made it easier for consumers - seeking a healthy alternative to cholesterol and saturated-fat laden dairy products - to dip into soy desserts.
Brawerman's decades-long labor in the nondairy field draws accolades.
He's "one of the pioneers in the soy foods industry in America," said Bill Shurtleff, director of the Soyfoods Center in Lafayette, Calif. "Not many people were making these kinds of products in 1980."
Shurtleff is the author of books on tofu and soy products, and his center seeks to boost the profile of soy in the American diet.
For the past 15 years, privately held Turtle Mountain has specialized in natural frozen desserts. Its products are now sold nationally, as well as in Canada, Australia, Britain and South Korea.
Turtle Mountain is headquartered in Eugene because of a connection Brawerman made more than a decade ago with Lochmead Dairy in Junction City.
Brawerman had been contracting with a corporate-owned dairy plant to make his products. But he wasn't satisfied with the big company's work. He decided he would rather deal with a small company.
So in 1989, he shopped around and found Lochmead, a small family-owned dairy that had the time and equipment to produce the frozen yogurt dessert Brawerman was working on. Brawerman established a good relationship with the Gibson family that owns and operates Lochmead Dairy.
That prompted him to make Lane County his base.
In addition to Lochmead, Turtle Mountain now contracts out manufacturing of its soy-based desserts to a company in Nebraska, and a couple of others in Southern California. Turtle Mountain also contracts out some manufacturing to Oregon Ice Cream in Eugene, maker of the Julie's ice cream brand.
Over the years, Turtle Mountain has refined its focus using organic soy milk and other organic products in search of ways to lure consumers. In 1998, Brawerman introduced Organic Soy Delicious. In 2001, he added the Purely Decadent line of premium products.
He currently works in a Los Angeles area office, which handles the company's sales. Turtle Mountain's corporate offices are in Eugene. Turtle Mountain's 17 Eugene employees don't do any manufacturing. Rather, they handle logistics, accounting, quality assurance, new product development, marketing and packaging.
The company struggled for recognition throughout the '90s, doing a couple million dollars a year in sales from 1995 to 1998. The business was unprofitable, and Brawerman's father pressured him to shut it. And at one point, Brawerman decided to do just that. But after he showed his products at a natural food trade fair in 1999, sales suddenly took off. By the end of that year, Turtle Mountain was doing $5 million in annual sales, Brawerman said. Inventories melted from 30 days worth of goods to just nine days.
Brawerman has no explanation for the sudden increase, calling it akin to a miracle.
Turtle Mountain's rivals include Tofutti Brands Inc. of Cranford, N.J., and Imagine Foods of Garden City, N.Y., makers of Soy Dream and Rice Dream.
Brawerman says there's plenty of room for competitors.
The U.S. market for ice cream products in supermarkets is about $7.5 billion a year, he said. If, as soy advocates maintain, up to 15 percent of the U.S. population cannot easily digest dairy products, then there is a potential $1 billion market for nondairy alternatives. Yet the current annual U.S. retail tally for all nondairy desserts is just $80 million, a drop in the ice cream bucket.
"We are in the mainstream groceries, and that's where the major growth is coming from," Brawerman said.
Shoppers can find Turtle Mountain desserts at natural food chains such as Whole Foods, New Seasons and Wild Oats and mainstream groceries such as Trader Joe's, Fred Meyer, Eugene-based Market of Choice and some Safeways.
A big hurdle for Turtle Mountain and other soy-dessert makers is consumer perception.
Many consumers know that soy is healthy. But they question whether it's tasty. To compete against ice cream, soy must taste luxurious. And it's tough to make the bean product as creamy and smooth as ice cream.
Who wants a dessert that imperfectly mimics ice cream?
"They're people seeking alternatives to dairy for religious, philosophical or health reasons," Turtle Mountain's Tucker said. He pointed out that Organic Soy Delicious products contain no saturated fats or hydrogenated oils.
To help sales, Turtle Mountain has added flavors including Dulche de Leche, Butter Pecan and Cookies 'N' Cream. The names suggest dairy ingredientsbut all are nondairy.
Turtle Mountain's deluxe brand, Purely Decadent, goes head-to-head against well-established premium ice cream brands such as Ben & Jerry's and Haagen-Dazs. All are priced around $3 a pint.
Soy Delicious received the Readers Choice award as the favorite nondairy ice cream in 2002 and 2003 issues of Veg News, a vegetarian newspaper.
Sales of Turtle Mountain recently came out ahead of all other frozen desserts - including soy-based competitors and premium ice creams such as Haagen-Dazs and Ben & Jerry's - in natural food stores, according to Spence Information Services, a San Francisco-based firm that tracks sales in natural food chains.
Turtle Mountain's research shows that three-quarters of its customers discovered soy desserts by accident in the store rather than by searching out a nondairy dessert, Tucker said.
For that reason, "we prefer to see (Soy Delicious) next to the regular ice cream," he said. "But for the most part, you'll find us in the natural food section."
Turtle Mountain executives continuously compare soy desserts to the real thing, ice cream made from cream and milk.
Soy desserts in the early '80s had an icier texture, Tucker said, with what he called strong "green soy notes," or a sort of grass flavor.
Do soy-based desserts have a strong future? New Seasons Market in Portland held a tasting event in their Portland stores earlier this month offering customers about 200 different soy items provided by 25 different companies, including Turtle Mountain.
Steve Saunders, assistant demonstration manager at the New Seasons Concordia store in northeast Portland, said Turtle Mountain's range of Soy Delicious flavors was well-received.