One of today’s leading experts in the booming plant-based protein sector started his career in Maine.

In 1980, Peter Golbitz cofounded Island Tofu Works in Bar Harbor. During the next few decades, he launched a leading soy industry publication, wrote a soyfoods cookbook and developed soy products for local, national and international brands. After he left Maine, he worked as a top executive for a multinational organic soy company and helped a West Coast plant-based cheese company get started. More recently, he’s worked for an Asian-based soymilk company, and helped the Plant Based Food Association create standards and the Organic Trade Association develop labeling.

“The industry continues, and it gets bigger and more exciting all the time,” Golbitz said when I reached him by phone at his office in Estero, Florida. He still owns a cabin in Blue Hill, visits here every summer, and said that his “heart is in Maine all the time.”

Peter Golbitz stands in his Bar Harbor kitchen in 1980 with some of the first tofu produced by Island Tofu Works. Photo courtesy of Peter Golbitz

Although he didn’t know it then, Golbitz took his first step into the industry in 1979 in Bar Harbor, where the New York native had moved after visiting Acadia National Park on a camping trip. He already baked his own bread and made his own granola and yogurt, and he was looking for a bigger do-it-yourself kitchen challenge. He decided to try making tofu. He bought a copy of William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi’s seminal 1975 “The Book of Tofu” for guidance, and was soon making batches of tofu in his kitchen.

The tofu turned out so well that in 1980, he and his then-wife, Sharyn Kingma, launched Island Tofu Works out of their kitchen. They invested $1,000 in commercial equipment, and began producing 75 pounds of tofu a week. To promote their product, Golbitz and Kingma did regular events, offering tastings of homemade Tofurkey (interestingly, Tofurky – no ‘e’ – launched its business on the opposite coast at the same time) and tofu pumpkin pie in places like Brewer and Bangor.

“Then after a couple years of making it in our apartment, we realized there was a much bigger business to be had,” Golbitz said. “We began to expand the business and we ended up landing the Hannaford chain account in Portland, which put us in virtually all the Shop ’n Save stores,” as Hannaford grocery stores were then called.

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Island Tofu Works was soon making 2,000 pounds of tofu a day and supplying close to 50 stores and restaurants. They also added a new product: Happy Pig Soysage, which they made from the soybean pulp leftover from manufacturing soymilk and tofu.

“By 1984, we were really working hard, from 5 in the morning to 10 at night, seven days a week,” Golbitz told me. “That’s when we hit the limits of our market. We were trying to get into New Hampshire and Massachusetts, and we were butting up against Nasoya and the New England Soy Dairy. We really couldn’t compete. What we made in a week, they could make in a few hours.”

Island Tofu Works contemplated a major expansion closer to Boston, but soon realized it would cost at least a $10 million project and require venture capital. Instead, the Island Tofu team decided to close its Bar Harbor factory, and use their soybean expertise to pivot to publishing.

The company renamed itself Soyatech, and began consulting and publishing the Soya Newsletter, a trade publication. Two years later, Soyatech purchased the rights to the existing “Soy Bluebook” from the American Soybean Association. By 1990, the company was selling up to 4,000 “Soya Blue Books” a year to customers like the U.S. Department of Agriculture, industry associations and tofumakers, large and small.

In 1998, Golbitz turned to recipe-writing with his “Tofu & Soyfoods Cookery.” It featured recipes he and Kingma had created for Island Tofu Works, such as that Tofurkey and tofu pumpkin pie, along with classics like tofu no-egg salad, tofu veggie burgers, tofu broccoli quiche, Korean barbecue tofu and creamy chocolate tofu marble pie. “Twenty-thousand copies sold,” Golbitz said. “I was pleased with that.”

Golbitz in Selepe, South Africa, in 2013, with community leader Bakiel Ben Shomriel. The pair are sipping soy yogurt that Shomriel made using soymilk from the Soya Cow, which is pictured between them. Photo courtesy of Peter Golbitz

Meanwhile, the consulting work continued to accumulate, and in 2006, Golbitz sold Soyatech to a Boston-based consulting firm. He stayed with the company for two years before joining SunOpta, a multinational company and one of the largest soybean processors in the U.S. Among his most memorable projects at SunOpta was the installation of a Soya Cow in a vegan community in South Africa.

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“A Soya Cow is a small processing machine,” Golbitz explained, “Smaller than a washing machine. It’s a grinder and a cooker in one unit. It makes three to four liters (of soymilk) in an hour. It’s a very clean product and nice tasting.”

On a continent where most people can not digest cow’s milk after infancy, the machine allowed locals to feed themselves instead of having to rely on often expensive imported soymilk. Though soybeans grow well in South Africa, most of the soybeans grown there – and around the world –  go to feed farm animals.

“We wanted to invigorate the soy market in Africa,” Golbitz said, “to make it a direct human food.” Hundreds of thousands of acres are needed to grow soy to feed animals, he said, whereas just a fraction of that, thousands of acres, can supply food directly to humans.

In 2014, Golbitz left SunOpta and launched Agromeris, his own consulting firm. He counts vegan cheese maker Nobell Foods among his clients.

How does Golbitz assess Maine’s plant-based business climate? Plant-based protein businesses here often face more demand for their products than they can supply.

There “are clearly some great opportunities,” he said, “but also challenges. The state of Maine has not invested in logistics that would allow its producers to get their products to a big market at a better price. It would take investments in logistics – grain storage, grain shipping, bringing the rail lines back.”

The ongoing conversion of Maine farmland into house lots is another obstacle, he said. Farms that could grow soybeans, yellow field peas and specialty grains are disappearing. “It would be good to invest in Maine as one of the future agriculture centers of North America,” Golbitz said.

So there you have it, Maine. Free advice from a leading expert on soybeans and the booming plant-based protein industry. I hope Maine’s leaders recognize the wisdom of his insights.

Avery Yale Kamila is a food writer who lives in Portland. She can be reached at [email protected]


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