The story of how two tempeh-makers took over Gainesville.


Illustrations by Eva Sailly.

Jose Caraballo tried tempeh, the vegetarian soy product infiltrating menus all throughout town, for the first time at “The Farm,” a spiritual camp founded in Tennessee in the 1970s. There, members were experimenting with foreign food products to supplant protein in a vegetarian diet. Caraballo liked tempeh so much he began making small batches for his family, then for neighbors, friends, and many local Gainesville businesses. And thus he began the Tempeh Shop to monetize the upward of 800 pounds of tempeh he now produces per week.

Caraballo, part scientist, part tinkerer, is arguably Florida’s first tempeh producer. He innovated many of his own technologies and tools, from vacuum packers to custom driers.

“I had to come up with new ideas,” he said. “For about 20 some years it was just me.”

Twelve years ago Caraballo’s son, Damian, joined The Tempeh Shop. Since then, the store has hired additional employees and now has the manufacturing capacity to produce double its current output. What began by the means of “one humble pot” now ships nationwide.

After his success, it wasn’t long before others—Art Guy, owner of Arto Moro Tempeh Company, among them—sought out lessons in tempeh making from Caraballo.

Guy was introduced to tempeh upon purchasing Steamers, a “weird little Midwestern sandwich restaurant” that also served up Indonesian curries and rice dishes in 2000. The former owners, an Indonesian couple, told him plainly to throw the stocks of tempeh in the trash, “because you’re American, and you’ll never do well with tempeh.” Guy, familiar with developing vegan trends, decided to keep it anyway.

For those reclusive carnivores unfamiliar with tempeh: Be patient, for it deserves serious—if not chief—respect among the meat analogs. Nutty, savory and hearty, tempeh is a fermented Indonesian food staple. Unlike tofu, its heavily processed and concentrated companion, tempeh is made using the whole bean, legume, or pea. The whole beans are never actually “cooked,” but instead are soaked in hot water, dried and inoculated with the mold rhizopus oligosporus. The culture containing the mold devours the beans during the fermentation process, breaking down the organic molecules and making them more easily digestible. The beans are then placed in perforated bags and left to breathe for upwards of 30 to 40 hours. The final product resembles a dense, cake-like sheet and does not require cooking before consumption. The unpasteurized method Guy and Caraballo utilize to produce and ferment the tempeh significantly increases its nutritional (and taste) value compared with commercially manufactured versions.

Tempeh production has surged in popularity as veganism begins to lose the stigma of angry, anti-authoritarian hemp-wears and the movement toward local and sustainable foodstuffs gains traction.

Caraballo and Guy together supply most of the tempeh found in Gainesville’s restaurants and local grocery stores. Though their beans share a moldy bond, it was insufficient to unite the two cottage industry visionaries, and their partnership was short-lived. It was “the love affair that didn’t happen,” Guy said, bemusedly.” One thing they can agree on: Their split was due to divergent business philosophies.

Compared to Guy, Caraballo prefers a slower-paced, more reactive business model. He relies on shipping, an online presence and word of mouth.

“I don’t like the stress of pushing the product. Sales will happen on their own,” he said. “… I had to wait so many years before I had an income … I’ve made [my business] more natural, more organic, [through] making and reinvesting, in the sense that it grows like a tree. Most businesses you take a big loan and it grows like a balloon.”

Guy, on the other hand, prefers to actively seek out his clientele.

“I promote [my business] by handshake, eyeball to eyeball. I deliver. Everything I do is essentially 20 to 50 years antiquated,” he jokingly said.

Guy and his partner, James Thurston, have a larger local base than Caraballo; but unlike Caraballo, they do not deliver outside Florida.

“There’s a cap to how far you can grow before a certain amount of detachment sets in,” Thurston said. He prefers “a personal ‘mom and pop’ operation where you know all the clients.”

The two realized it was better for them to go their separate ways. But, Caraballo qualified, laughing, “you will find very few towns in the United States that have two tempeh shops.”

No matter their different entrepreneurial styles, both men undoubtedly share a paternal-like affection for tempeh.

“I just follow God’s rules,” Guy said, observing the natural, almost neglectful obedience involved in tempeh-making. “Converting food to tempeh is a beautiful thing, but that’s done by God.”

Caraballo echoed the same sentiment.

“It is definitely spiritual to see nature working for you,” he said. “You are not actually manufacturing tempeh, you are growing it. Much like a farmer, all I do is create the conditions that will favor this live product to grow.”

Guy’s and Caraballo’s unpasteurized tempeh is frozen immediately after fermentation, which preserves the living organism and the product’s nutritional vigor.

Tempeh production has surged in popularity as veganism begins to lose the stigma of angry, anti-authoritarian hemp-wears and the movement toward local and sustainable foodstuffs gains traction.

“If you know anything about Gainesville,” said Sara Puyana, the owner of Flaco’s, it’s that “there are a lot of vegetarians. Vegetarians don’t want to feel limited. Because I’m a vegetarian I can’t have a taco now? It’s not just a vegetarian thing, people incorporate it into their regular diets.”finaltempeh2

Tempeh is produced commercially: Publix, Winn Dixie and Walmart all sell the pasteurized version. While this tempeh has a longer shelf-life, it forfeits the probiotic benefits and leaves a characteristically bitter aftertaste.

Guy and Caraballo are also not subject to rigid scheduling, as is the case with tempeh produced commercially.  Their businesses are small enough that it’s feasible for them to personally oversee production of their tempeh.

“I find it very rewarding that something could be created and manufactured and still be a local product,” Caraballo said. “[The Tempeh Company has] been certified organic for nine years now. Most people find that is too much for a small operation, but we think it’s worth it.”

“My number one interest,” Guy said, “is not to become big and corporate and have board meetings. This business is protected so someone can make a living and people can eat healthy, living food. That’s basically the future of the company.”

Maintaining a small business, with or without competition from other local companies or national chains, is exhausting in its own right.

“I get a hundred phone calls a day from all over the state,” remarked Thurston, who along with Guy does the entirety of the production, delivery and sales “Keeping up with demand and organizing your week and months on a production and delivery schedule based on how much people need and when—it’s difficult.”

You can find both Caraballo and Guy at the Wednesday Farmers Market in Bo Diddley Plaza. There, the long-addled competition between the two can be observed side-by-side. You can also find another form of competition in almost every restaurant in Gainesville that offers vegetarian options. Tempeh is extremely versatile: From Pop-a-Top, it’s deep-fried and placed atop their vegetarian cobb salad. At El Indio, it’s marinated in spices and loaded into tacos and quesadillas. It’s served in Jamaican-style curries and barbequed like pulled pork—the list goes on.

Although the two men’s history has been tempestuous rather than temperate, it has been temporally tempered by their mutual passion for generating and distributing a nutritious and wholesome product—good for people and good for the Earth in general.

“Protein is an incredibly powerful force in the food industry,” Guy said. “Protein generally means death. Tempeh has a life, not a death.”