Entrepreneur, vegan, and self-proclaimed solutionary, Sarah Speare believes that it can.

Sarah Speare, cofounder and CEO of Tootie’s Tempeh in Maine, believes that tempeh is a sleeping giant that can alleviate global hunger, reduce our dependence on animal agriculture, and help solve the climate crisis.

“It’s delicious, it’s versatile, and it’s a perfect protein that can be grown and produced around the world,” she said. “If we want to tackle problems in a way that does the most good, with the least harm to people, animals and the planet, tempeh is it.”

What the heck is tempeh?

That’s the name of Speare’s latest marketing campaign for Tootie’s Tempeh. “A lot of people don’t know what tempeh is, but they are interested in reducing their consumption of meat. They’re becoming aware of issues around animal agriculture and climate, as well as the benefits of a plant-based diet on their health.”

So, what the heck is tempeh?

A traditional Indonesian food, tempeh is a fermented, high-protein food typically made from soybeans. It can also be made from a variety of other beans and legumes, including chickpeas, lentils, and black beans. Minimally processed and endlessly versatile, tempeh comes in a cake form, which can be stir-fried, steamed, baked, sliced, cubed, or crumbled. It’s firm texture and nutty flavor make it an adept alternative to meat. Speare is particularly partial to her tempeh reuben recipe, which has converted even the most skeptical of carnivores.

“One of our engineers was like, no way, I’m never eating that!” said Speare. “We made him a tempeh meatball and now he’s one of our biggest champions.”

An ancient food for modern times.

A staple source of protein in Indonesian cultures for 400 years, tempeh itself is not new. Where Speare differentiates her company is in her proprietary production process, which aims to drastically reduce–and eventually eliminate–the use of plastic in the fermenting process and packaging.

“What a disconnect,” she said. “This superfood that is so healthy is being made in such an unhealthy way for the planet. That is one of our major points of differentiation.”

Rather than fermenting in single-use plastic bags, Speare envisioned a new and revolutionary fermenting process. “I had no idea what I was getting myself into,” she said, “but I felt strongly about establishing the groundwork for this company in alignment with my values. It was very clear.”

She and her cofounder, Barbara Fiore, started experimenting with making tempeh in reusable containers. They started out in Fiore’s kitchen, eventually joining the Fork Food Lab incubator in Maine and, later, moving into a commercial kitchen in a church basement in Portland.

Today, the company is located in a 2,000 square-foot production facility in Biddeford. “We made 155 batches of mostly terrible tempeh,” she said. But they learned from each mistake, meticulously documenting the humidity, temperature, airflow, fermenting time, and other details. After more than a year of research and development, they entered into partnership with the Baker Company, a bioscience company that develops incubators. With a grant from the Maine Technology Institute (MTI), Baker helped them to build a fermentation chamber prototype. “We needed both,” said Speare, “the containers and the incubator. We were developing them simultaneously.”

They succeeded. Their alternative method of fermenting uses 50% less plastic, which has already saved tens of thousands of bags from landfills and oceans. And, says Speare, “We can confidently say that our tempeh tastes better and doesn’t have the bitter after-taste that tempeh can be known for.” They also use a recycled paperboard box for their outer packaging, which is appealing to consumers and another point of differentiation.

A plastic-free fermentation process, however, was only the tip of the iceberg for Speare. Having successfully launched Chomp, a company that made breath-freshening treats for pets, she had seen first-hand the challenges of manufacturing and distribution of food products in the U.S. Her experience at Chomp, which eventually sold to a large competitor, gave her a unique perspective and a firm conviction to “do things differently.”

Rather than a central manufacturing facility proximate to monoculture agriculture in the midwest, Speare envisioned regional worked-owned cooperatives that utilized regenerative, local agriculture. Rather than utilizing extensive resources to transport products, she envisioned local agriculture supporting local stores.

“The idea of a worker-owned coop was percolating in me, along with systems change and the imbalance of power and wealth,” she said. “With Chomp, we had one point of production and a spider web of distribution that was extremely resource intensive. I thought, ‘Why not have worker owned regional facilities around the country so that each one can source from their local farmers? That was the inspiration.”

Scaling a company and an idea.

Speare officially launched Tootie’s Tempeh in November 2022 to 75 stores around Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts. “It was a slug fest getting to that point,” she said, “but there were a lot of people and resources that supported us.” In 2021 and 2022, she raised $363,000 in preferred shares from individual and institutional investors to bring the company to production.

More recently, the company raised another $300,000, including $25,000 from the Vermont-based Flexible Capital Fund (Flex Fund), to scale up the company post-launch and meet projections.

“It’s a great fit for the Flex Fund,” said president Janice St. Onge. “A woman-led, worker-owned cooperative that supports healthy, local food systems is well aligned with our values.”

Just about one year after launch, Tootie’s has expanded distribution into Hannaford’s grocery stores and is adding distributors to deepen their reach in New England. With the help of a second grant from MTI they scaled up the Baker incubators and now have a twelve-by-twelve fermentation room.

“It’s just the beginning,” said Speare, whose big picture goals include getting the entire tempeh industry to go plastic-free, growing demand for the category through education and creative recipes, and ultimately, providing healthy nutrition to people around the world.

“Supporting the wellbeing of people, animals, and the planet permeates everything we do,” she said. “It’s in every decision.”

“What if you could get tempeh into countries where there is real hunger and starvation, and people could grow their own beans instead of growing food for animals?” she asked. “What if those beans were grown regeneratively as a rotating crop? I mean, all of these things are possible and I see them in our future.”

“If we really push,” said Speare, “it can provide nutrition and work and community around the world.”

For more information: www.tootiestempeh.com.

About the Flexible Capital Fund

The Flexible Capital Fund, L3C is a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) and impact investment fund that provides flexible risk capital in the form of subordinated debt, revenue based financing (also known as royalty financing) and alternative equity structures, to growth-stage companies in Vermont and the region’s food systems, forest products, and clean technology sectors.

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