One of Iowa City’s newest commercial food producers, Old Capitol Food Co., plans to start selling its products in area grocery stores this January.
OCF is a natural food company started by University of Iowa undergrads that focuses on fresh and local foods. The first product they plan to sell is fresh tofu made from local soybeans and distributed only in the Iowa City area. The OCF owners emphasize that there is a noticeable difference between fresh tofu and commercial tofu that has been in transit and storage.
“I like to compare it to a fresh mozzarella cheese,” said Jake Gratzon, an OCF co-owner. “When you have fresh mozzarella, you know it’s fresh. Tofu is the same thing. When it’s fresh, it’s so much better, and you can taste it.”
The owners hope their fresh tofu will change consumers’ perceptions about the product.
“In our market research, we found that people think [tofu] is bland, flavorless — people don’t know what to do with it,” said Matthew Mesaros, another OCF co-owner. “The aim of our company with tofu is to make it sexy.”
OCF hopes to have its products on shelves in Hy-Vee and New Pioneer Co-op, as well as other grocers in Iowa City. Eventually, they would also like to supply tofu to local restaurants, farmers’ markets and even the UI dining halls.
As the company gets established, OCF would like to eventually move into flavored tofus, which they say will be different from other tofus available in Iowa City.
“Most flavored tofus you see [are] just flavored on the outside, and if you cut through it, you see just the same plain, white tofu that you always see,” said Gratzon. “So our idea is that in the process of making the tofu, before we even press it, we’re going to roll in and infuse the flavors into the curds so that when you bite into the tofu, the flavor is all the way through it.”
OCF has roots in the Iowa City community. Gratzon and Mesaros are students at the University of Iowa. Mesaros worked in the former downtown Wedge alongside Ethan Brown, another owner, who has also worked for the Red Avocado and Trumpet Blossom. The seed money for the company came from the Spring 2014 UI Business Model Competition, where they placed third, earning $3,500.
One of OCF’s goals is to keep the brand entirely local; in addition to purchasing soybeans from Iowa farms, OCF will also design and screen-print all their labels themselves.
Since winning the competition in February, the company has received tremendous community support from the business school, local advisors and entrepreneurs, as well as Public Space One, which helped them get started by renting them their commercial kitchen. They recently found their own location and are in the process of setting up the equipment to get their tofu ready for sale in January.