By Kevin Hardy
The Des Moines Register
DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Bob Rees wants you to look around the refrigerated yogurt section the next time you’re at your local grocery.
Take stock of the multitude of variations. Pay heed to the multiple berry varieties. Notice the chocolate yogurt, the lemon flavor and even the yogurt laced with coffee.
The nearly overwhelming variety, he believes, can be the future of tofu, the soybean curd that is a staple in Asian cuisine.
“You got Dannon; you got Yoplait; you got AE — some are regional players; some are international players,” Rees said. “That’s where this company is going to go.”
Rees, a 59-year-old Des Moines inventor, hopes to be the guy to take flavored tofu mainstream.
By mixing Jell-O and pudding mixes with store bought soy milk, he’s created jiggly prototypes for strawberry, banana cream, orange and even bacon-flavored tofu.
“That’s what Americans are used to,” he said. “You want to cater to your audience — they’re used to yogurt; they’re used to pudding; they’re used to Jell-O.”
But Rees has his work cut out for him.
The soy foods market is growing, but flavored products have struggled to gain mainstream acceptance amid ever-changing consumer diets, The Des Moines Register reported.
In March 2015, WholeSoy & Co., the maker of the market’s leading soy yogurt, closed its doors, citing burdensome debt and operational costs.
Most customers are accustomed to eating savory tofu, often as a meat alternative. Shifting consumers’ tastes to a sweeter product will take some work, said Nancy Chapman, executive director of the Soyfoods Association of North America.
“Is it a dessert? Is it a snack?” she said. “It’s not that consumers would be opposed to it. It’s that they have ways that they’re (accustomed to) eating. And to have a sweet tofu, you’d have to explain to them how you would use it and when you would use it in a daily meal pattern.”
Grabbing a share of the highly competitive yogurt market would also be daunting, Chapman said — particularly when you’re up against the national ad campaigns of the industry’s giant players.
The national soy foods market was worth about $4.5 billion in 2013, Chapman said. Of those sales, tofu accounted for just $30 million, though the bean curd and the overall soy foods markets continue to expand.
But the flavored tofu proposition does have some things going for it: consumers are increasingly looking to plant-based proteins, such as soy, to replace meats and dairy.
Data from the market research firm Spins show that plant-based foods — including plant-made versions of meat, tofu, milk, yogurt, cheese and cream — grew nearly 9 percent in 2015. That growth more than doubled the overall growth in food and beverage sales.
Plus, customers — particularly the young — always love a new food adventure.
“They’re willing to try anything,” Chapman said. “They’ll buy crickets and grasshoppers.”
Rees caught the entrepreneurial bug late in life. After working as an application systems engineer for Wells Fargo Home Mortgage, he said he left his job in 2011 to pursue his inventions.
He licensed the use of his Bubble-Worm, a plastic tube that blows long, windy streams of bubbles, that he created in 2009. That product eventually made its way into consumer toy products, like Gaz-zuds, toy foam guns.
Already, his mind is wandering to his next projects: solar chargers for cell phones and laptops.
To pursue his other inventions, Rees hopes to license his flavored tofus to the owners of Iowa Food Manufacture, a tofu plant near Water Works Park in Des Moines.
He’s in talks with the Zhou family, which opened the small plant in 2015 after moving to Iowa from China. The factory sells soft and hard tofu to grocery stores through a Chicago distributor.
“This is the blending of two cultures,” Rees said, “Chinese culture with American culture.”
Fei Zhou, the chief executive of the family tofu plant, already is producing some savory flavors of tofu, including sesame and barbecue. But he’s not yet convinced about the prospect of a line of sweet tofu.
“Eh, I don’t know,” he said, looking at a Styrofoam bowl full of jiggly red strawberry tofu. “Maybe it’s good for the American people.”
Though he’s just in the experimental phase, Rees is bullish on the future of his tofu: He envisions the company raising millions of dollars, going public and opening multiple manufacturing facilities across the region.
He will start seeking investors soon for his tofu line, which he plans to call LSAT, short for Legends Soy and Tofu.
“Everything starts at the beginning,” he said. “All these big companies — I don’t care how big they are — started small.”
His idea comes at an opportune time, said Linda Funk, executive director of The Soyfoods Council, an affiliate of the Iowa Soybean Association that seeks to bring soy-based foods into the mainstream.
“The biggest thing for tofu is if you haven’t grown up with it or it hasn’t been part of your diet, people sometimes wonder what to do with it,” Funk said. “So there’s an education component.”
For years, the industry has toyed around with the idea of rebranding tofu to lift its image, Funk said, adding that it’s an idea Rees may want to consider when labeling his product. She points to the popularity of edamame, the green immature soybean pods often served as appetizers in Asian restaurants.
“They don’t have a problem with it. They don’t even know it’s a soybean,” Funk said. “So we’ve often thought about, `Do we need to call tofu something other than tofu?”’
She imagines sweet-flavored tofu finding its way into commercial juice or smoothie shops.
But Rees will have to get it right on the first shot. She points to the rollout years ago of fat-free cheese, which bombed because it confounded consumer expectations for taste and texture.
“One thing the soy foods industry has learned along the way is, when you put a product out there, it has to taste really good the first time,” she said. “You don’t get a second chance.” ■