Hodo Gives Back to the Farmers Market

May 8, 2020

Founded in 2004, Hodo was born on a simple premise: to bring fresh, high-quality organic tofu directly to the people. It has since grown into a national plant-based brand⁠ found on Michelin-starred menus and grocery store shelves alike⁠. Still, Hodo remains firmly rooted in Bay Area values, with production in Oakland and a loyal following at local farmers markets.

As farmers, food makers, and restaurants are being hit hard during the COVID-19 crisis, Hodo is rapidly pivoting to meet the demands of home cooks who are shopping online and at the farmers market. During this time of shelter-in-place, Hodo is giving back to help keep farmers markets thriving, donating proceeds from their Saturday Ferry Plaza Farmers Market booth and items in the CUESA Farmers Market Box to CUESA.

We spoke with founder Minh Tsai about the role farmers markets play in incubating businesses like Hodo, how Hodo is adapting during the pandemic, and why supporting farmers markets is so vital, especially now.

CUESA: Tell us a bit about Hodo’s origin in the farmers market.

Minh Tsai: We launched Hodo in 2004 at the Palo Alto Farmers Market and joined the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market soon after. Around that time, businesses that were not specifically farms began to show up at the farmers market. Prior to that, it was mostly farmed produce⁠—not a lot of products like jam, olive oil, and chocolate. This was the generation that launched many other well-known brands like St. Benoit Creamery and Blue Bottle Coffee.

For us, the farmers market was perfect to launch Hodo because, first, it was one of the few places where consumers cared about organic, and we were selling organic tofu. Second, we wanted to be able to talk to people directly and answer their questions about sourcing and how our tofu was made. Third, we wanted to prove to people that tofu, as a plant-based food, is not what they grew up eating or imagined it was.

The farmers market was the best place for us to get instant feedback so that we could innovate and develop the product that meets the demands of what consumers were interested in. It’s like a startup R&D lab for food brands. That model still exists today.

What was the response at the farmers market in those early days? 

What we really wanted to do was really to re-educate people about tofu. We started this movement that we called “Tofu 2.0.” The 2.0 notion of disruption as relevant to Silicon Valley and the Bay Area⁠ at the time. For us, we wanted to be able to say, “This is not what you think you know. This is something that you haven’t tasted before.” At the market, people would eat it and say “Wow, what did I eat? No, that’s not tofu.” And we could engage in conversations with them at the stall, something that was expected from a direct-to-consumer standpoint. 

What we did not expect was meeting all the chefs⁠ who shop the farmers market, sourcing amazing produce from the farmers—chefs like Patty Unterman of Hayes Street Grill, Annie Somerville from Greens, Charles Phan from Slanted Door⁠. They started picking my tofu directly⁠ and started putting Hodo on their menus.

From the beginning, we didn’t set out to be a national brand but a local brand. There were many models of successful local bands that we were emulating at the time, such as Cowgirl Creamery, Acme Bread, Scharffen Berger, Straus Family Farms, and Niman Ranch. We had these local brands that we were trying to become, and all these local brands had one thing in common, which is that they’re uncompromising in terms of the quality of their product.

How has the COVID-19 crisis impacted Hodo’s business and workers?

The biggest challenge for us is that the food service part of our business has completely dried up. It’s tragic⁠, with so many restaurants and Silicon Valley commissaries closing. But fortunately for us, because people are staying at home and ordering online, we’ve been able to redirect our capacity from the food service side to the retail side. We have to do it very slowly for safety and labor reasons. COVID has reduced our efficiency, which impacts the total amount of products we can make.

As a food producer, we’ve always had a culture of worker safety and food safety, and we have been able to take that program and expand it. We have staff walking around 24 hours sanitizing all commonly used areas. We are doing social distancing everywhere. We honor our workers who are afraid to come to work, so our labor force is not full at this time. We have had a robust health insurance program and PTO. We recently implemented an “appreciation pay” program to provide additional wages for workers who work outside of home more than 50% of the time.

The saving grace of being in our position is that we are still considered an essential business. And we are very honored to continue to produce a plant-based food that people want. We’re selling more at the farmers market now than before. It’s an important access point, particularly for people who don’t feel comfortable going to the grocery store. 

Why is Hodo giving back to the farmers market at this time?

We want farmers markets to continue to be around, and we want people to come out and support them. As always, it’s still the best place to get all your food, and the best place to directly support your local growers and food makers. Personally, I’ve shopped more the farmers market these past two months than any other time since I started at the market, and at a time like this, I’m especially thankful that the farmers market exists.

Find Hodo in the back plaza of the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market on Saturdays. Hodo will be donating proceeds fromt their stall to CUESA tomorrow, in addition to donation proceeds from their products in the CUESA Farmers Market Box

All photos courtesy of Hodo, except for 15th anniversary photo by Savannah Kuang. Minh Tsai portrait by Jen Siska.

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