The Strange Way He Got Rich: Turning Tofu Into 'Ice Cream'

<b class="credit">Courtesy David Mintz</b>
Courtesy David Mintz

Summertime is here, and for many of us, that means we'll be taking some vacation -- a little down time to let our minds decompress from the usual worries of work, housekeeping, and the like. It's at times like those that a person might start thinking about some outside-the-box ideas, pondering some "what-ifs."

To help inspire you to work on your own million-dollar ideas, for the next three days, we offer you three stories of unusual entrepreneurship -- true tales you probably haven't come across before. First up: David Mintz and his sweet solution to an ancient problem.

David Mintz
Courtesy David Mintz

Defeating a Dairy Dilemma

In the early 1980s, David Mintz, an Orthodox Jewish and restaurant owner in New Jersey, wanted to create a kosher dessert for his business catering bar and bat mitzvahs. Kosher diets require a strict separation of meat and dairy. If Mintz served a dish with meat, he couldn't serve any food made with milk later in the meal -- and that rules out a lot of popular desserts.

"Since necessity is the mother of invention, I did my research, went down to Chinatown, bought my first pail of tofu, and after many months of trial and error, I was finally able to develop a tasty, milk-free frozen dessert" that resembled ice cream, says Mintz. "I purchased a soft-serve machine and started selling the product in my restaurant. It was an instant hit."

Later, a chance whiff of media attention caused the product to gain nationwide attention, Mintz said. "After trying our product, a reporter from the New York Post wrote an article featuring our restaurant. Once she wrote that article, I had calls from as far as the West Coast requesting our products."

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Mintz realized he had stumbled upon an entire product category -- dairy-free versions of staples from ice cream sandwiches to pizza and ravioli -- that appealed not only to Orthodox Jews but to millions of people who were lactose intolerant or following a vegan diet.

The company, named Tofutti, expanded its product range and began distributing products to specialty food stores across the country. In 2011, Mintz took the company public on the American Stock Exchange, where it now has a market cap of $8 million, according to S&P CapIQ.

Most recently, Haagen-Dazs has begun distributing Tofutti products and placing them in supermarkets all over the U.S. Tofutti products are sold in 36 foreign countries as well, Mintz reports, and the company is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year.

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Catherine Baab-Muguira is a contributing writer to The Motley Fool.