Island Spring Tofu

Sound Consumer | February 2005

by Sophia Harwell

(February 2005) — The first time Luke Lukoskie stepped foot onto Vashon Island, he knew he belonged there.

He immediately picked up his belongings from the Montlake neighborhood commune where he was living and moved to the island. One year later, in November 1976, Island Spring Inc. was born. Started as a collaborative effort between Lukoskie and friend Sylvia Nogaki, the small-scale tofu business filled a substantial void for consumers in the Northwest. It was an immediate success.

“It was the right thing to do at the right time,” Lukoskie said. “It was like magic.” Retailers, including PCC and Community Produce, started selling Island Spring tofu immediately. This didn’t come as much of a surprise to Lukoskie, who had been following a macrobiotic diet for more than six years. He knew how hard it was to find protein-rich tofu in Seattle, especially tofu produced organically.

He also recognized, as a board member at PCC, that the United States was on the cusp of an explosive health foods market and demand was growing for high-quality natural foods. Lukoskie and Nogaki were poised to be pioneers in the United States tofu market.

Before the mid-70s, the American soybean was primarily an oil seed. The by-product of making soy oil, the remnant soy pulp was often used as animal feed because of its high nutrient content.

In 1976, with the publication of “The Book of Tofu,” William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi helped bring about the United States soy revolution by identifying this by-product as a healthy alternative protein source for human consumption. The book is a how-to manual instructing the reader in tofu production techniques, equipment types and sources, as well as recipes.

“William Shurtleff pointed out what a miracle food tofu could be,” Lukoskie said. For Lukoskie, tofu was more than a source of nourishment: it was a choice about how to participate in the world. “I looked everywhere for an idea of how best to contribute,” Lukoskie said. “It wasn’t until the idea of tofu that I knew what I would invest my life in.”

The first Island Spring tofu was made in a 14'x14' utility shed on Nogaki’s piece of Vashon land. Ten days after opening, Nogaki pulled out and Lukoskie continued alone. It wasn’t an easy start.

As the sole Island Spring employee, Lukoskie began each workday at 11 p.m. and worked through the night, finally finishing at 5 a.m. “It was hell,” Lukoskie said. “You have to be crazy passionate to make your own business work.”

Lukoskie’s first efforts to bring local organic tofu to the Northwest have paid off over time. In the 28 years since Island Spring was founded, the company has grown to 18 employees and produces up to 1 million pounds of tofu in a year. Lukoskie, now 58, passionately believes in the healthfulness of tofu, especially the healthfulness of his own Island Spring tofu.

“The heart of why Island Spring exists is to produce the best food possible for humans,” Lukoskie said. Tofu is low in calories and high in protein. “The bioavailability of calcium in Island Spring tofu is greater than that from dairy cheese. The magnesium used in the tofu making process is necessary for our bodies to digest the calcium,” Lukoskie says.

When it comes to managing the business, Lukoskie is heavily involved. But he also believes in the abilities of his employees. “You cultivate leaders by giving them responsibilities and giving them feedback,” Lukoskie said. “I consider myself a servant of the people. I teach and motivate, but the rest is up to them.”

It has proved important to have an able and dedicated staff. In 1986, a fire devastated the Island Spring factory. Lukoskie purchased another plot of land and put his tofu production staff to work as carpenters. In a mere 58 days, they built a new 4,000-square-foot plant, where Island Spring is housed today.

Sales are now just under $1 million annually. Island Spring sells a diverse number of organic soy-based products to markets all over the Northwest, including PCC. In the future, Lukoskie intends to remain devoted to his mission to bring the best tofu to the market and says he hopes someday to see tofu, rather than a chicken, in every pot. “My dream is to see home delivery of Island Spring tofu just like the milkman when I was a kid.”

From 1969 to 1970, Luke volunteered at one of PCC’s original stores at 2261 N.E. 65th St. in Seattle, where he repackaged peanut butter from five-gallon buckets into retail sizes. He also served for a time on PCC’s Board of Trustees.

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