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Is Tofu Ready for the Big Leagues?

September 26, 1996|MARGARET SHERIDAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Tofu, the spongy off-white soybean cake that spells B-O-R-I-N-G for so many people, is about get a marketing make-over. Slick packaging, toll-free consumer hotlines, new products and a blitz of cookbooks created by chefs rather than earnest vegetarian activists are some of the strategies tofu companies plan to use as they attempt to bring tofu into the mainstream.

In the supermarket you can already find tofu as salad dressing, mayonnaise, veggie-burger, frozen dessert, hot dog, spicy meatless sausage, dairy-free yogurt and sour cream replacement, Mexican-flavored snack spread and a substitute for bacon. There are flavoring packets that will turn the soy curd cake into chocolate pudding, an eggless breakfast "scramble" seasoned with Italian herbs, a taco filling or a pizza topping.

Within the next year, new cookbooks will extract tofu entirely from its original Asian context. It will show up in brownies, paella, red flannel hash and cappuccino pie. Even the newest edition of "Joy of Cooking," still in the writing phase, will feature tofu recipes.

Packaging is going to undergo a revolution of bold colors and graphics. And those dreadful sloshy refrigerated containers will give way to stylish cubes of shelf-stable packaging.

But some advertising and marketing professionals say that's not enough.

"Tofu is a joke," says Adam Morgan, an advertising executive with TBWA Chiat/Day who specializes in food products, with accounts such as Ragu spaghetti sauce and Unilever Foods. "Tofu is a sissy. Bland, white, boring. It needs to take a stand. Become something. And that name! It's terrible."

Tofu goes against the American palate, says Martha Dahlen, who has been teaching classes on Chinese ingredients in Hong Kong for 18 years.

"Very little in American food, except baby food or gelatin, has that texture," she says.

"Even buying tofu is alien. What else do you buy floating in water? And Americans love convenience. Bean curd is anything but. It's not an open-and-eat product."

And tofu threatens some cooks. "I buy tofu," says Annabelle Stevens, president of Warren Cowan & Associates. "But it just sits there, floating, in my refrigerator. It makes me feel stupid and guilty. What do you do with it? I end up tossing it out."

Stevens, who also teaches classes in how to market products, agrees with Morgan: changing the name and putting a face on it would help. "Call it something French, like Le Tofu," she says. "Then stick Wolfgang Puck's picture on it. It would take off."

Color is a problem too. "White food is boring but red food isn't," Morgan says. "Spaghetti is boring, so is fish. But when you add tomato sauce to pasta, or bread crumbs and paprika to fish, it appeals."

He faults manufacturers for lack of imagination. "Tofu is a half-finished product. Take it one step further, then sell it. Make it convenient, user-friendly. Sell it already mixed with spices and chiles and sell it as a spread or something you toss with hot pasta. "

Of course, some people think tofu is just fine the way it is. "Trying to make tofu sexy is dishonest," says William Shurtleff, who brought national attention to tofu when he published "The Book of Tofu" in 1975. "Tofu isn't sexy. It's plain, like a pair of old shoes. The more you wear them, the more comfortable they become."

Winning the masses over is insane, he says. "Most Americans are not open-minded about food. They like what they like and have no interest in trying something else."

When Morinaga Nutritional Foods Inc. hired Bucher & Russell Advertising of Los Angeles to promote Mori-Nu brand tofu, Susan Bucher started at the bottom. "All people knew was that it was white and Asian," she says. "Only a few associated it with health."

Progress has been slow but steady. Over the years, Bucher & Russell has developed point-of-sale coupons, an exercise video and recipe booklets. A newsletter goes out to 7,000 Mori-Nu customers. When the company introduced its fat-reduced "lite" variety in 1993, sales jumped 30% in one year. "We spent millions," says Tom McReynolds, marketing manager.

Plans for Mori-Nu include a larger package, more colorful packaging and an ad campaign that touts tofu as a staple in American pantries.

Though Mori-Nu distributes nationwide, Hinoichi is the largest manufacturer in this country. It targets Asian communities.

When Don Potter got the advertising account for Hinoichi from House Foods America Corp., the executive launched a cable television cooking show. Far more successful and far-reaching were the radio spots with celebrity endorsements and recipes by chefs, not to mention a toll-free number.

Prospects for sales and product development are pushing Hinoichi forward. Next March, the company vacates its 50,000-square-foot plant in Los Angeles for a facility three times the size in Garden Grove.

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