Back in the ‘90s, I discovered the grilled vegetable salad with herbed tofu at Beans & Barley. I’d never eaten much tofu, nothing memorable at least, and this tofu was different – firm and deliciously seasoned. That’s how I came to know Milwaukee’s The Simple Soyman, a 40-year-old business that makes 20 food products, from herb tofu to Saucy Jo, a meatless version of Sloppy Joes made with tofu. Grocers like Outpost Natural Foods, Woodman’s and Whole Foods carry their tofu. And local restaurants from Beans & Barley to Cloud Red to Easy Tyger feature it on their menus.
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Perhaps this was inevitable: The couple who’ve been making tofu for all of their married life are ready to pass on the torch to someone who shares their enthusiasm for natural, vegetarian foods. “The kids are off on their own little careers, so it’s not something that we can pass along to our children,” says co-owner R Jay Gruenwald, who married Barbara the year after they founded their company.
“As we left the church, we were showered with soybeans by our friends and families. The Simple Soyman had become a family business,” reads a passage from their website.
Tofu isn’t something you’re likely to make at home, though there are plenty of recipes if you look online. Many of Simple Soyman’s products, though – especially that herbed tofu – are pretty unique. Plus, there’s also the commitment the Gruenwalds have to natural foods. “In the 40 years that we’ve been doing this, there are certainly a lot more plant-based things out there,” says R. Jay. “But there’s very few natural food things. So much of it has soy isolates and refined wheat gluten. We buy from a couple of local farmers near Seymour because we want to support family farms. We’re hoping to find someone with that same idea in mind.”
Easy Tyger’s chef, Heather Habram, uses the tofu in dishes like the buttered corn ramen. A future without The Simple Soyman is not one she wants to contemplate. “We are so incredibly lucky to have them in Milwaukee. I don’t think people realize what an amazing product they put out,” Habram says.