Monday Interview: David Knibbs, of The Tofoo Co.

A meat-free food business has enjoyed dramatic growth since it was bought by husband and wife team David and Lydia Knibbs in January 2016.

The couple bought R&R Tofu, in Malton. The firm is now called The Tofoo Co. and employs nearly 100 staff.

Its owners have worked in the food industry for most of their careers. David Knibbs worked for Mars for 10 years, before moving on to Bulmers then Symington’s in Leeds.

Lydia Knibbs was employed by Arla for 17 years before moving to Symington’s, which is where the couple first met.

David Knibbs said they decided to buy R&R Tofu to deploy the knowledge they had accumulated over so many years of working for other people.

“We’d already worked with vegan products at Symington’s and felt this was a market that was going to grow,” he explained.

“We were keen to find a small business which we could scale up.

“At first we could only find businesses on sale for about £5m – we didn’t have that kind of money. But then Lydia found R&R online – it had been on sale for a few years and we were just blown away by this company’s product.

“At the time we bought the business it was selling block tofu. We’ve taken this basic concept and developed it.

“We felt there was a younger market out there, more predisposed to be thinking of the environment and less obsessed with the ‘meat and two veg’ culture.

“When we carried out consumer research we found a lot of people didn’t know what to do with tofu, so we designed our brand around how it can be used. We’ve been able to engage with a whole load of new consumers who hadn’t really understood tofu before.

“When we bought R&R it turned over £600,000, but now our run rate is about £14m. We’ve gone from eight full-time staff to 93 staff.

“And we’ve gone from making three tons of tofu in a week to more than 70 tons.”

Knibbs said despite the changes, the company had stuck with the sound methodology of its previous owner.

He added the company’s product remains handmade and organic, despite the labour intensive nature of this process.

“It was always a great product and we didn’t want to mess with that,” he said.

“It is labour intensive but we think automation would harm quality, so we’re sticking to our guns.”

He said the business has ambitious plans for further expansion, as for the last three to four years it has been operating at or near capacity.

Knibbs said: “We’ve spent something like £3m on our factory. And in about five weeks we’ll be getting some new equipment from Japan which will give us 70% more capacity.

“We are planning for another £2m to £3m worth of spending in the next 18 months and we’re expanding our product portfolio. We’re looking into both frozen and snacking products.

“Our biggest challenge has been keeping up with demand. But our bank, HSBC, has been amazing when it comes to supporting us and making sure we have the right funding at the right time.”

He said The Tofoo Co. experienced a major increase in demand for orders following the COVID-19 lockdown.

And he noted that with cafes and restaurants currently closed, people are experimenting more with what they can cook at home – which provides another avenue of opportunity for the firm.

“Once people have got over the mental barrier of trying tofu they learn that it’s great and they keep coming back to it,” he said. “It’s gratifying to see how much we’ve been embraced by our consumers.

“We have an excellent workforce and we doubled our sales year on year in January.”