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.
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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