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Solving the great Capitol Hill COVID-19 tofu shortage of 2020

Cracking the mystery of Capitol Hill’s great COVID-19-induced shortage of tofu was harder than you’d think, but in the end, one Vashon-based company offered a solution.

For starters, asking major chain stores about their tofu distribution was fruitless. QFC, Safeway, and Whole Foods managers all said they couldn’t answer questions about a tofu shortage, and offered phone numbers to their regional corporate offices, a maze of automated answering systems. Even “Trader Joe’s doesn’t talk to the media,” said one manager, giving me a Monrovia-based personal phone number for a company rep, whose mailbox was naturally full. As irksome as the runaround was, it’s expected that most grocery stores are busy keeping their shelves stocked, and answering one reporter’s questions about tofu isn’t a priority.

Information on any shortages of the ultimate plant protein was found with the people who are experts on it, vegans. Holly Iles, assistant manager at Vegan Haven, the U District vegan grocery store, revealed the issue is with distributor UNFI, United Natural Foods, scrambling to meet the demand.


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“It was the first week or two that COVID really hit Washington when people were panic buying,” Iles observed. “Our distributor was having a really hard time getting anything to us, let alone tofu. Once our distributors were able to adjust to what was going on, they ramped back up and we were getting most of what we ordered. We got like, 10 cases in and sold out in a day. The next week we ordered 40 cases. We’ve been advertising it to people: we [now] have tofu coming out of our ears.”

UNFI is a larger distributor to Whole Foods, the Central Co-op, and others.

Central Co-op estimates their tofu shortages started around March 7. Hannah Hart, the Coop’s perishables buyer, noted that at the height of the shortfalls, the Co-op was out of tofu for at least a week. “Our distributor experienced not only a massive jump in the size of orders, but also a decline in staffing from issues related to COVID-19. It is my understanding that in some instances, [they] were able to get product from manufacturers, but they did not have the capacity to build pallets, or enough trucks and drivers to deliver all of our orders,” she said.

Hart doesn’t foresee any future shortages, especially now that distributors have started to “implement limits on delivery sizes to ensure that they can fulfill everyone’s order. We are also starting to see a return to somewhat normal shopping habits as well.”

Tofu in action! (Image: Island Spring Organics)

When it comes to meeting the demand for tofu, one local company says they’re more than prepared for the challenge. W M “Luke” Lukoskie, a renowned tofu educator, founded Island Spring Organics on Vashon Island 45 years ago. They source organic, non-GMO soybeans from the Midwest, and make tofu and other soy products at their island facility. “We put out a current rate of a million pounds this year, and have capacity to put out another 20,000 pounds a week.”

Lukoskie noted that distribution systems are failing because, due to the restaurant shutdown, people are forced to buy more groceries, and distributors that supply restaurants are different than those that supply grocery stores. The grocery suppliers simply aren’t expanding fast enough.

CanIsland Spring meet Seattle’s demand for tofu? Lukoskie responds with a resounding yes. UNFI, and other major distributors carry Island Springs products. “All [customers] have to do is ask their store to carry Island Spring. We’ll definitely satisfy the market. We have a 99.9% success rate over 45 years of meeting orders. We can expand quickly. Our supply chains are stable. Tofu’s pretty simple. It’s coagulants, water, and soybeans. We’ve been here for the northwest for 45 years, and we’re here now, and we will bust our butts to get product to the people.”

Another local tofu company, Northwest Tofu on 19th and Jackson, is still up and running. While their restaurant is closed in compliance with COVID-19 protocol, they still supply to Uwajimaya, and sell their house-made tofu in bulk.

But the supply chain still has hiccups. After our first discussion, Hart reported that in the Co-ops’ latest mid-week shipment, they were shorted on all tofu orders except for Island Springs products.

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8 thoughts on “Solving the great Capitol Hill COVID-19 tofu shortage of 2020

  1. “Lukoskie noted that distribution systems are failing because, due to the restaurant shutdown, people are forced to buy more groceries, and distributors that supply restaurants are different than those that supply grocery stores. The grocery suppliers simply aren’t expanding fast enough.”

    I think this is a pretty key paragraph. I doubt many people are “hoarding” groceries, we’re all just buying a little bit more. Even the families that were already buying enough for 1-2 weeks still need to buy more, since most people (if they’re able) are staying home. Supply chains are optimized to meet a certain demand… if most every family suddenly finds themselves buying extra, of course there are going to be shortages. Especially if the supply chains are already operating at capacity.

    • Some of this is most certainly true. I was an everyday type of shopper and have not had to change gears to do as much as possible at once, but I do think some things have been cleared out in an unusual manner….. people freaked out a little and definitely bought more dry goods and frozen veg than normal – both of those aisles are still wiped out at Safeway. Even the more unusual grains are no where to be found. I normally buy rice and flour at Cash & Carry, so I’ve no worries there, but not being able to find quinoa – which a lot of people don’t even like is unusual. Tofu was a surprise, but it was already in short supply for some reason *before* people apparently started stocking up.. I did my usual stock up on non-perishables a week or two before people started to worry and I ended up buying some shelf stable packs, because the fresh was all gone.

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