TRAVERSE CITY — The tofu team at Oryana Natural Foods Market does "American Gothic."
Nicholas Hirs, stoic, holds "Soycaliber," a long-handled silver shovel. Brian Czamanske clasps the hose, unsmiling.
They freeze — serious and still for photo purposes only. The shutter clicks, laughter resumes and the tofu tornadoes whirl off to task.
Making tofu is hot, fast-paced work requiring strong backs and sense of humor. It's made in a tight, bright and steamy space within the Oryana complex. Hirs and Czamanske coordinate movements around large metal equipment on a slippery floor.
The childhood friends from Leelanau County make it look easy. Officially they are the "tofu production team" but insiders call them the "soy boys." And boy, do they know soy.
"A good tofu block has good heft. It's firm, no holes and no jiggling," Hirs, 25, plucks up an one-pound block submerged in a sink of constantly running water. He models the block like Vanna White. "Joanne here is a perfect specimen."
Hirs and Czamanske kick out 700 pounds of tofu a week. Thirty or so pounds transfers to the cafe for use in prepared foods. Customers buy it on retail shelves or in bulk. Oryana also distributes tofu to Red Ginger, Cherry Capital Foods and to Grain Train in Petoskey.
A typical week breaks down into three production days, plus packing, clean up, preparation and infusing the tofu with flavors like curry, jalapeno garlic and dill.
The soy boys don't eat their work — they are actually "carnivores" — but have passion for the process.
The encapsulated version: Dry soybeans arrive from a farm in Eaton Rapids. "These soybeans are Michigan-grown, non GMO, and certified organic, so people don't have to worry about anything," Hirs said.