In Marketplace

Basket full of goodness: Simple Soyman's date bar, sesame and cashew circles.

In Marketplace

Simple Soyman's herbed tofu is an Outpost classic.

Simple Soyman keeps things local

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They've continued this way for many years. After other small food production companies would fold or call it quits, Simple Soyman would buy their recipes, which is how they started making granola.

When the Stoneground Bakery folded, they gave the recipe for their popular date bar to Simple Soyman, which continued its production.

"We did what we had to do to stay in business, while also keeping things simple," says R Jay.

Small, simple, natural, healthy and local are long-held principles for the Gruenwald couple, not just corporate buzzwords. But being interested in staying local and actually maintaining it have been a challenge over the years.

R Jay says they had many conversations about how they could have gone bigger, but remained committed to being local, family owned, directly connected to the people buying their products and connected to the farmers who plant and deliver their soybeans.

"If you get too big, you can't do that anymore. What you do get is a higher level of efficiency -- and you earn more money -- so it's always been a battle," says R Jay.

There's a picture of one of the farmers standing knee-high in soybean plants on Simple Soyman's office wall. They used to have six or seven suppliers, now they maintain close relationships with just two who are able to raise the quantity Simple Soyman needs.

R Jay and Barbara Gruenwald have two children. Jayson, who is 22 years old, and Jared, who is 18. The boys were raised on vegetarian diets. According to R Jay, Jared would get hassled by members of his swim team because of this and told his challengers that if any of them beat him swimming, he'd eat meat. He never lost.

Although the boys work for Simple Soyman, either making deliveries or helping to spiff-up product labels and design a web page, Gruenwald says it's hard to interest them in the family business long-term.

"They see how much work it is," says R Jay.

Making tofu is labor intensive. They put in many 16 and 17 hour days, working in two shifts. For just the two tofu production days each week, R Jay gets up at 1 a.m. in order to be at Simple Soyman to start the process by 2 a.m.

R Jay says people's perceptions about tofu have changed over the years. Mostly, he finds that folks are more willing to experiment with it, to come up with ways to prepare tofu that they like.

"It's not like cheese. If people cut a slice of tofu and put it on bread, they'll never buy it again. But people who eat a beef dish they don't like don't stop eating beef, they don't eat that dish again. With tofu, it takes a little time to experiment with recipes," he says.

R Jay also says that Simple Soyman's Saucy Jo is great for introducing people to the possibilities of tofu.

Simple Soyman is considered a natural foods company and not a vegetarian business per se, because the principles the company is built on have more to do with people's health, staying local and natural ingredients. R Jay says one of their mottos is "we won't make it and sell it if you can't make it at home." They do not use refined ingredients in their products, such as sugar, preferring instead to use honey or maple syrup.

R Jay has heard from some vegans that they would rather Simple Soyman use sugar as its sweetener, since vegans often do not eat honey. He says they try to make their products vegan, but when this conflicts with maintaining natural products, natural and local remain their first consideration.

"We put out high quality soybean products. We're family owned, continue to stay local and we're available for people who want to talk to us," says R Jay.

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