Simple Soyman keeps things local
R Jay and Barbara Gruenwald started Simple Soyman, 3501 N. 35th St., in Milwaukee in 1983. Since then, the company has grown to be the main supplier of tofu products to area restaurants as well as provide a host of other natural foods to area groceries.
We spoke with R Jay recently, while Barbara and their nine employees were busy keeping our corner of Wisconsin full of Simple Soyman products. "R" is R Jay's first name -- just the letter, not an initial. The company has been in their current production facility, located near Capitol Drive, for 18 years.
"We love talking to customers, but if somebody stopped during a busy production process we wouldn't be able to talk to them and, since we're a manufacturer, we can't sell anything to people directly out of the facility. Either Barbara or I are the ones answering the phones, though. So give us a call," says R Jay.
Simple Soyman's tofu is sold all over Milwaukee and Madison, including the Natural Food Shop, 3048 S. 13 St., Milk and Honey, 10948 W. Capitol Dr., Health Hut's three suburban locations and some products are carried at Sendik's Oakland and Downer Avenue locations.
The Willy Street Co-op is the largest supplier of Simple Soyman products in Madison, whereas Beans and Barley and Outpost Natural Foods carry the most complete line of Simple Soyman products in Milwaukee. Some restaurants using Simple Soyman products in Milwaukee include Brewed Cafe, Comet, Riverwest Co-op Deli, Classic Slice, Pizza Shuttle and many others that have tofu or tempeh on their menus.
Other than tofu, some of Simple Soyman's most popular products are sold under the Bountiful Bean label, including hummus and tabouli. These can be found at all the Outpost locations and other area groceries.
And Simple Soyman sells burgers, lots of burgers, which R Jay prefers to call "patties" because a "burger patty" often has beef connotations. Their tofu patty is made with other vegetables and is sometimes called a "toaster burger," as they can be re-heated in a toaster, lacking any grease that would drip.
Simple Soyman is also known for its granola. They used to sell many retail packs, including four ounce packages of granolas previously sold at the Milwaukee YMCA, but they no longer do much of the smaller packaging. They still provide a one-pound granola to Kallas Honey Farms and 20-pound containers to the Outpost for the bulk section.
R Jay says that back in 1983, Outpost was the main vegetarian option in town. Both he and Barbara volunteered there, which is how they met in 1979, while Barbara also worked full-time at Beans and Barley.
R Jay and Barbara were on a food meal committee at Outpost which sponsored a meal every three months, usually at United Methodist Church, just off the UW-Milwaukee campus on Kenwood Boulevard.
Through this committee work, they were approached about having a booth at the now-defunct Small is Beautiful Fair and they thought, "How are we going to compete with hamburgers?" They came up with the idea for a sloppy joe-like tofu sandwich, complete with pickle on pita bread. R Jay says many people came back for seconds that day and the leftovers were sold at Outpost's deli.
Now sold as the Saucy Jo, this sloppy tofu was the impetus for the Simple Soyman business.
The couple was actually thinking about starting a tempeh production company but at just that time one opened in Madison. R Jay says the market for tempeh couldn't possibly sustain two such producers in close proximity, so they came out with the Saucy Jo.
They rented space from the original tofu company in Milwaukee, Magic Bean, which later went bankrupt. R Jay says Simple Soyman expanded more aggressively after Magic Bean folded, introducing other products and Mexican and Italian-flavored tofus.
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