RIP to David Mintz, the P.T. Barnum of Tofu

Photo: Julio Cortez/AP/Shutterstock

David Mintz’s life changed in 1972, in a basement kitchen in Chinatown, where cooks transformed fresh soy milk into soft tofu for neighborhood dim sum parlors. After they determined that the enthusiastic, 40-something Jewish New Yorker wasn’t a city health department inspector, the cooks agreed to sell him a gallon.

Almost a decade later, Mintz came up with his most famous tofu-based concoction: the frozen dessert known as Tofutti, a dessert that scooped like full-fat ice cream, but contained no dairy at all. He’d nailed the recipe, after what he said was nine years of failed attempts, all jettisoned down the drain in his Bensonhurst kitchen. As he once told a reporter, “I am personally responsible for clogging the sewers of New York City.”

Food scientists had warned him it was impossible. Instead, Tofutti changed the world’s frozen-dessert landscape as a popular sweet for vegans and those keeping Kosher. It would also make its creator, who died February 24 at the age of 89, a millionaire.

Mintz was born June 8, 1931, the son of a Williamsburg bread baker, and grew up in the neighborhood’s Orthodox Jewish community. After a brief stint selling mink stoles, he opened shops that sold prepared foods. One ingenious ploy involved Mintz’s promotion of the Jewish grandmothers he’d recruited in place of line cooks to prepare the most comforting foods: stuffed cabbage, fat knishes, perfectly rolled rugelach. The babushka strategy attracted long lines, Orthodox and not. “Finally I had to hire one grandma, a grandma foreman, to manage all the other grandmas,” Mintz told the Times.

It took Mintz a decade to reverse engineer the taste and mouthfeel of various dairy ingredients that are forbidden, by Jewish law, to be served together with meat. He eventually learned that tofu could emulate the sour cream he felt should be dolloped on beef stroganoff, for example. Tofu emulsified with vegetable oil and alfalfa honey took on a butter-fatty texture and became the parve key to an ice-cream alternative that could triumphantly close out a fleishig meal.

Of course, tofu was already hot at the time, hailed the “yogurt of the 1980s” — as if the food hadn’t been going strong elsewhere in the world for a collective 7,000 years. The corporate hype was fueled by a health-foods arms race waged by ex-hippies who’d descended back into the realms of capitalism, not to mention an enduring American appetite for newness. When Tofutti landed its first major coverage in the Times, MTV had been broadcasting from West 57th Street for a mere 11 days.

The market for Tofutti may have started with observant Jews —  Mintz even sought guidance from Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Schneerson, the venerated Orthodox Jewish leader — but it soon expanded to include the lactose intolerant, fad dieters, suburban vegetarians, and parents anxious to get their kids to eat plants on the sly. Early Tofutti flavors like carrot-raisin-apple, a riff on the Rosh Hashanah side dish tzimmes, also gave way to more serviceable chocolate and vanilla flavors, plus wildberry and banana-pecan.

Tofutti was eventually hard-packed and sold by the pint at Häagen-Dazs shops and 23,000 retail stores nationwide. It sold out at Zabar’s and Bloomingdale’s, where it was a rumored favorite of Jacqueline Onassis and Brooke Shields. When Gloria Vanderbilt launched Glacé, a glam Tofutti competitor, Mintz upped the stakes and began selling fancy marble-swirl Tofutti cheesecakes alongside scoops.

A Tofutti sundae, in 1984 Photo: Al Freni/The LIFE Images Collection via G

The brand expanded to an entire line of punily named foods like Pan Crust Pizza Pizzaz, Better Than Ricotta, and Mintz’s Blintzes. L♥ve Dr♥ps were Tofutti pints with chocolate-covered graham crackers. “Marry Me” bars were wedding-themed — “For a healthy, long lasting relationship.” Tofutti Cuties were Mintz’s best-selling answer to ice-cream sandwiches.

As his business grew, so too did Mintz’s ambition, and even as he’d casually suggest the idea of garlic Tofutti, he could also outline a plan for the Future of Food that has since been floated in countless Silicon Valley start-up pitches: a world of meatless burgers, vegan cheeses, and environmentally responsible protein sources.

By 1985, his New Jersey factory receptionists answered phones with a chipper “Tofutti All-Rootie,” and full-page ads saw Mintz styled with an immaculate cone and a slightly loosened necktie, the only hint of his exhaustive self-promotion. In 1986, he signed a deal to sell Tofutti within the Soviet Union, to be churned out in an unnamed, “small and neutral” country. Like Coca-Cola, which also landed in the USSR that year, Mintz said his recipes were ultraproprietary secrets. “If you take all the ingredients and try to make Tofutti, you’ll never do it,” he claimed.

That same year, he also had a cell phone installed in his car to conduct deals with efficiency during his commute from the affluent suburb of Alpine, New Jersey. At home, Mintz’s property featured 15 ponds, which he stocked with koi that, he said, he fed with tofu.

William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi, who chronicled the soy industry for decades, dubbed Mintz the “P.T. Barnum of tofu,” but even if competitors couldn’t replicate Tofutti, journalists were seemingly eager to pull it apart. Paul Obis, the founder of Vegetarian Times, discovered that for at least one stretch, Tofutti was made with isolated soy protein and no actual tofu. A separate exposé claimed that Tofutti was only between 3 and 15 percent tofu, while newspapers pointed out that Tofutti’s elevated calorie counts were typically higher than traditional ice cream.

In response, Mintz added tofu back into the recipe, thanking his detractors for leading him to a higher-quality, “creamier” Tofutti, and continued to capitalize on his better-living-through-soy narrative.

Today, Tofutti is part of a nondairy ice-cream market that, by 2025, will be worth $1.2 billion, and features plenty of flashier rivals — Van Leeuwen, Oatly, and even a vegan line from Ben & Jerry’s. They all exist, in part, thanks to Mintz and his hustle. In the earliest days, Mintz once double-parked outside a fancy Manhattan health-food store to make a delivery to his first customer, only to find a ticket on his windshield carrying a $45 fine — far more than he’d just earned. But Mintz was too elated to be angry. He’d not only launched his company, but he’d created an entire category of dessert that would endure for decades.

RIP to David Mintz, the Inventor of Tofutti