In 1972, after hearing about tofu, a versatile vegetable protein derived from soybeans, Mr. Mintz ventured to a subterranean kitchen in Chinatown, where it was being made. He bought a gallon.
Then he went to work. For years, after closing his restaurant at 9 p.m., he experimented like a late-night mad scientist working on a secret formula.
“I would call it Tofu Time at my restaurant,” he later told Food & Drink magazine, “and we’d work into the wee hours of the morning testing all different things for tofu, adding sugar and more.”
He made tofu substitutes for sour cream and cream cheese, but the ultimate goal was to create a nondairy ice cream that would be as good as the real thing. He mixed water, sweeteners and flavors in countless combinations, sometimes working until the cooks began arriving for the morning shift. One of his experiments exploded, leaving bits of fake ice cream stuck to ceiling.
After almost a decade, Mr. Mintz finally succeeded in making a frozen dessert that had the taste and texture of ice cream, but he couldn’t think of what to call it: Soy dessert? Frozen tofu?
“Then one night at 4 a.m. it came to me: Tofutti,” he said.
By the mid-1980s, Tofutti had proved that it was more than a passing fad, and Mr. Mintz had established a food company built on ingenious uses for tofu, including Better Than Ricotta cheese, Tofutti Cuties ice cream sandwiches and Mintz’s Blintzes.
A tireless promoter who called himself “the man who licked ice cream,” Mr. Mintz died Feb. 24 at a hospital in Englewood, N.J., near his home in Tenafly. He was 89.
The death was confirmed by Steven Kass, chief financial officer of Tofutti Brands. He did not know the exact cause, except that it was not related to covid-19. He said Mr. Mintz had been in the office less than two weeks before his death.
While he was still a caterer and deli owner, Mr. Mintz was convinced that he had discovered the next big thing in tofu.
“I’ve got tofu fever,” he said in 1980, before he had perfected the recipe for Tofutti. “It’s a food of the future. It’s a miracle food.”
At first he was thinking of broadening the offerings of his catering service, while maintaining the dietary restrictions of Orthodox Judaism. When he served his tofu cheesecake, some of his customers spat it out, convinced that it contained dairy products.
“Have you lost your religion?” they asked Mr. Mintz, who was Orthodox himself.
He was supported in his quest by Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, the powerful Brooklyn-based leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic movement. When Mr. Mintz told Schneerson, known as the Rebbe, about an opportunity to open a restaurant on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Schneerson said he should trust his faith and focus instead on his dream of creating foods from tofu.
“I couldn’t sleep nights,” Mr. Mintz told the New York Times. “I’d be formulating, always formulating. I’d wake up in the middle of the night, just thinking about all the things I could do with tofu.”
In 1982, Mr. Mintz’s Tofutti sales totaled less than $24,000. Far from discouraged, he continued to make more Tofutti, on the theory that “you can’t sell anything from an empty pushcart.”
Bloomingdale’s and Zabar’s food store began to carry Tofutti in New York, and in 1984 Mr. Mintz hired people to sell Tofutti from carts on the street. Sales topped $2 million that year and more than $17 million in 1985.
Other companies soon followed his lead and began to make tofu-based desserts, but Mr. Mintz was undeterred by the competition.
“No one, thank God, has come close to the taste of Tofutti,” he said in 1986. “Try it, taste it, and tell me you don’t love it.”
He expanded his offerings to include cholesterol-free chocolate desserts, Tofutti ice cream bars, blintzes and tofu-based cheeses. He reached out to the emerging vegan food movement and to an untapped market of millions of lactose-intolerant Americans.
“They should not suffer,” Mr. Mintz said. “They should eat Tofutti.”
David Mintz was born June 8, 1931, in Brooklyn. He said his birth certificate listed his name as “Donald” because the attending nurse misunderstood his immigrant mother when she called him “Dovid,” the Yiddish version of David. His father was a baker.
Mr. Mintz attended Brooklyn College and later worked in the fur trade. (He later returned to Brooklyn College and, according to alumni records, graduated in 1976.)
In his 20s, he opened the first in a series of restaurants and catering services in Brooklyn, Manhattan and the Catskill Mountains. When he had a restaurant in the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn, he said an elderly woman asked if she could cook for him.
“She was in her 90s, easily,” Mr. Mintz told the Times. “She said, ‘Don’t mind my age. I’m very capable. You’ll see.’ What could I say? I didn’t want to hurt her feelings.”
Her lokshen kugel, or noodle pudding, sold out immediately. She invited some of her friends to join her, and soon Mr. Mintz placed an employment ad: “Grandmas wanted. Flexible hours, flexible days.”
The homemade knishes, stuffed cabbage and rugelach sold as fast as they were made.
“Finally I had to hire one grandma, a grandma foreman, to manage all the other grandmas,” Mr. Mintz told the Times.
His first marriage, to Ethel Mintz, ended in divorce. His wife of 37 years, the former Rachel Avalagon, died in January. Survivors include a son from his second marriage and a sister.
Mr. Mintz became a multimillionaire and was a major supporter of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement and other Jewish causes. He remained the chief executive of Tofutti Brands, headquartered in Cranford, N.J., until his death.
In a company-produced video, Mr. Mintz touted the various products his kitchens made, from cream cheese to ravioli to apple-pie pizza and, of course, Tofutti ice cream.
“We spent 30 years of hard work and burning the midnight oil, and we finally got products that will knock your socks off,” he said in the video. “So it would be a good idea, when you go out and buy our products, make sure you have extra socks.”
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