Next Level Local: Iowa City’s Old Capitol Food Co. Takes Off with Tofu


From left: Jake Gratzon, Matthew Mesaros, and Tim Schuett have set up shop in Iowa City as Old Capitol Food Co., making tofu with organic Iowa soybeans. Their tofu's in ALL of New Pi’s tofu dishes, and is now on our shelves for you to cook with!


Purity is priority at Old Capitol Food Company, which is why entrepreneur and driven perfectionist Jake Gratzon is taking us to shake hands with his water system. It could be about as long an introduction as you like, since it starts with filters, softeners – the whole works – and ends with a reverse osmosis filtration system for water perfection: “We only use the purest water we possibly can, because tofu is predominantly water, after soybeans,” Jake points out.

On the note of soybeans, tofu is entirely soy, so Iowa is where tofu ought to be made, given our proclivity for growing ‘corn and beans.’ “Most tofu is produced in New York," Jake explains, carrying a fossil fuel price tag to get it here. Old Capitol Food Co.’s proud to source entirely USDA organic soybeans from Iowa farmers for their Iowa-born tofu.

Old Cap's local organic tofu is now on our shelves at New Pi for your cooking pleasure! (Here's a photo of what to look for right here – though word is they're rolling out a new label shortly!)


New Pi’s proud to cook exclusively with Old Capitol’s local, organic tofu in our kitchen and delis. Love our Curried Tofu Salad (left, above) and Kung Pao Tofu (right)? We think it’ll make you even happier now.

What kind of people make tofu?

Well, these days, young motivated people. “I enjoy cooking [tofu] and have for many years,” Jake nods. But his background’s not in tofu studies, if that’s a thing. This band of three all just graduated from the University of Iowa in the past year: Jake studied ceramics and accounting, Matt has a BFA in graphic design (spending lots of time in printmaking and the metal shop), and Tim, who’s helping with the nuts and bolts phase
of the start-up, studied sustainability and environmental studies. Put them all together and what do you have? Food entrepreneurs, of course! (Okay, so maybe that wasn’t an obvious answer, but it floats our boat.)

A few years ago they started the first of hundreds of trial tofu batches to hone their recipe. In kitchen space at PS1 in downtown Iowa City, “We got our feet wet and did some testing,” Jake recalls. Recipe finalized, they found a space they could turn into a certified kitchen in the far reaches of east side Iowa City. “We decided to just go for it, and build this place out.”


Draining soy milk from the soy solids.

Iowa, the Land of Tofu?

“We built this whole place ourselves,” Jake grins. They hardly left out a thing, building everything from scratch from the lofted office space to laying attractive, graphic flooring in their certified kitchen, to their silkscreen exposure unit (for making their own labels), to their own tofu baskets, presses, and whey vacuum. This is definitely Iowa tofu from the ground up.

Making tofu is an interesting process, with surprising similarities to making cheese. Jake and Matt take the craft very seriously: “We take our time and care in all parts of the process.

There’s a lot of human influence in how it turns out.” Their organic Iowa soybeans are soaked overnight, blended in a high power blender, and strained to remove the solids from the soymilk.

A boon for local farmers: The remaining solids, called okara, are a byproduct of making tofu. It still has nutrient value, so they give it to a local farmer to feed her pigs.

After heating the soymilk, a coagulant is added – in this case, traditional Japanese nigari – magnesium chloride, basically a food grade, purer Epsom salt, Jake clarifies. “The secret with coagulation,” he notes, “is not going too fast. A lot of industrial tofu producers over-coagulate.” Taking care not to rush the coagulation, “gives better flavor, consistency, and texture to the tofu.”

After it coagulates, they ‘break the curd’ with a wooden paddle. “This is where the art of tofu making comes in,” Jake explains. They follow “a slower, more traditional process that provides a more delicate consistency, while still allowing it to be firm. Some people say tofu can be grainy; this eliminates that graininess.” It separates into curd and whey (similar to the cheese making process), and they use their specialized vacuum to pull out the whey.

The guys hand-pack it into their cloth-lined forming basket, wrap it up, and put it into their press (the fifth they’ve built, making adjustments along the way), where they increase the pressure until it’s properly pressed and fully drained. Then they trim it, cut it into blocks, and cool it in two flushes of reverse osmosis water to bring it down to temperature: “A big part of tofu [making] is properly chilling it,” Jake explains. After the cooling process, they pack it in fresh, pure water and send it on its merry little way.

Fresh IS Best

“I don’t like any other tofu on the shelf,” Tim admits. Old Capitol’s has a very clean flavor and, “the texture is less gelatinous; it’s more firm. When you grill it, it forms a skin on the outside, like chicken. It soaks up marinade a heck of a lot better,” Tim adds, with about an hour of marinating time for theirs equivalent to an overnight marinade for mainstream tofu.

While other tofus might have “a sour or bitter aftertaste,” the freshness of theirs offers “a very clean flavor,” Jake points out. “Our stuff is just born – you can still teach it. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, and you can’t teach old tofu new tricks either,” Jake laughs.

When they deliver their tofu to New Pi’s kitchen and shelves, it’s “tofu made yesterday. You won’t get that really... anywhere,” Jake says. He compares fresh tofu to fresh mozzarella – when it's fresh, you know it.


Their Favorite Ways with Tofu

- Tofu Tostadas or Tacos

- Walnut Pesto Pasta with Tofu

- Tofu Salad (a vegan riff on egg salad)

- Grilled Marinated Tofu Steaks: Make them with pretty much with any meat marinade, or Tim’s partial to an apple juice marinade, heavy on the garlic, with maple syrup or brown sugar. “The maple syrup and brown sugar give it a nice glaze,” Tim adds. Or try a marinade of soy sauce, brown sugar, olive oil, and black peppercorns, or add fresh sage, rosemary, or any herbs you like.

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