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The fellow who invented the world-famous dairy-free ice cream called Tofutti came within a hair’s breadth of giving up his search on any number of occasions.

After vainly seeking the magic formula for nine years, almost 24/7, says David Mintz, he would go to bed at night thoroughly discouraged and firmly determined to cut bait, to throw in the towel, to abandon ship. Come morning, the Bergen County resident would doggedly renew his pursuit – encouraged by his wife, Rachel. And eventually – in 1981 – he lit upon the secret. The sign: People who tasted the stuff finally gave their approval, and stores began begging him for Tofutti to sell.

The secret ingredient (or process) is … still secret. Tofutti is made in various plants around the country, and the concoction at each plant is not complete until Mintz’s minions mix them together. Result: Competitors have failed to duplicate the special flavor of Tofutti. “It’s like Coca-Cola,” says Mintz. “None of the bottling plants has the secret formula. If you take all the ingredients and try to make Tofutti, you’ll never do it.”

What we do know is that tofu, an almost flavorless, cheese-like soybean product, is at the heart of Tofutti. Tofu is not only free of milk; it also has no cholesterol and fewer calories than milk or yogurt.

As for Mintz’s other secret, the secret of his entrepreneurial success, he has a simple explanation: perseverance. “No one becomes successful without working hard,” he insists. “And you can become successful no matter how old you are – even if you’re 100. The Talmud says you’re never too old. There are so many opportunities. There’s gold in the streets, but you have to dig for it.”

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Mintz stands before an old homogenizing machine. His motto, he says, is: “We aim to cheese.” Photos by Jerry Szubin

What else accounts for his success? Recognizing a needy market. An observant Jew, Mintz was aware that many Jews would dearly love to eat ice cream (milchig) for dessert after a meal that includes meat (fleishig) – something forbidden by Jewish law. Good-tasting pseudo-ice cream without milk would do nicely. Besides, a great many people (30 to 60 million Americans, according to various estimates) are allergic to milk products. Their stomachs cannot break down the lactose in milk, so they get bellyaches and other abdominal problems. Indeed, many people, as they grow older, become somewhat lactose intolerant – including Mintz himself.

How else does he account for his success? Experience, he says. He was a caterer and restaurant owner for years. His father had been a baker of bread and rolls, and wanted Mintz to follow him into the business. Mintz wasn’t interested, but his father proposed that he at least learn the trade, which he did – and after graduating from Brooklyn College, Mintz went into the restaurant business (after a detour into the furrier business). “I love to feed people,” he says today.

Mintz was born and grew up in Williamsburg. (He told this to an out-of-town journalist once, and the journalist responded, “Oh, I love Virginia!” Mintz loves telling that story.)

Something else that Mintz learned from experience: what not to do. Don’t economize so much that you don’t have enough product to sell. “You can’t sell anything from an empty pushcart.”

As a kid, he recalls, he saw an ad in a comic book for a Charles Atlas exercise kit. Send in 50 cents and get muscles. He sent in 50 cents. Nothing. A month later, he wrote to Charles Atlas: Where’s my muscles? He eventually got a letter saying there’d be a delay. In other words, the pushcart was empty.

Still another secret of his success: He thinks outside the box. Example: Years ago, running a restaurant in the Catskills, he wanted recipes for some authentic old Jewish staples – from knishes to kasha. He placed an ad in the local paper: Grandmothers Wanted. Several came – and cooked their favorite secret recipes for him in his kitchen. His business bloomed. Traffic was so heavy, a sheriff had to direct it.

At one point in his life, Mintz was running three delis in Manhattan and making good money. But he still dreamed of concocting a good-tasting milk-free ice cream. Customers would even tease him: “When are you going to give us Mintz’s blintzes?”

Now, a fellow named Donald Trump owned the East Side properties on which Mintz had his delis, and suddenly Mintz’s delis had to make way for Trump’s apartments.

Some Jewish friends on the West Side knew of a vacant property that seemed perfect. Mintz was, naturally, interested. Besides, a professor at Penn State, an authority on food, told him it was a pipe dream – he’d sooner grow hair on his palm than come up with a milk-free ice-cream substitute that didn’t taste like glue.

But then, providentially, someone fervently urged him to pursue his dream – to continue trying to invent a dairy-free ice-cream and forget about the West Side deli.

“He gave me a roadmap for what to do,” Mintz remembers. “Everything bad, he told me, is a blessing in disguise. Think positive.” Should he give up seeking a milk-free dessert? “Absolutely not!” the person counseled. “This is going to be huge. Don’t open a new restaurant. Don’t get discouraged. The good lord will help you.”

The person giving that advice was the late Menachem Schneerson, the Lubavitcher rebbe.

It took Mintz long, long years but he finally found a milk-free quasi-ice cream that was edible. And he gave it an inspired name, Tofutti – which sounds like “tofu” combined with tutti-frutti.

Nor did he stop searching. Today Tofutti Brands makes not only non-dairy “ice cream,” but non-dairy “cream cheese,” non-dairy beef stroganoff (Mintz’s mincemeat?), non-dairy “cheese” pizza, non-dairy “sour cream,” and so on and so forth.

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At 4:01 p.m. on March 31, at Tofutti headquarters in Cranford, this reporter was offered coffee while waiting to interview Mintz. He boldly requested a Tofutti Cutie instead. His first, ever. A young female Tofutti employee brought him a bar, together with a napkin and two small bottles of water.

Verdict: Okay. Not as bad as he had feared, not as good as he had hoped. Edible. Sort of like Charlotte Church’s singing as compared with Renee Fleming’s. Passable, not great.

Later, another employee gave our daring and resourceful reporter a spoonful of a new Tofutti product, called Flowers, made from the nectar of flowers that hummingbirds love. Wow! Renee Fleming herself! And other new products, like cheesecake and ice cream cones covered with chocolate, also passed the taste test: substitutable for real ice cream, without reservations. In fact, a delicious Tofutti cheesecake placed in the conference room of The Jewish Standard at 9:15 one morning had disappeared totally by 10:02 a.m. (Fressers.)

Today Tofutti brand products are sold in all states and in 30 countries, and there are 50 to 60 varieties (including Mintz’s Blintzes but, as of now, no tutti-fruitti Tofutti). It’s a public company and has 15 or so employees at its headquarters. Net sales last year: $19.6 million. Mintz himself is well-to-do, with two houses. One is a “Shabbos house” (you can walk from there to a synagogue on Fridays and Saturdays), where he makes meals for 20 to 25 Friday-night guests – and tests out his new products.

He was wearing a black outfit with a pen stuck in his shirt pocket when interviewed recently, along with (of course) a kippah. His beard and hair are graying. He’s very talkative: His conversation is full of funny remarks, startling information (everywhere in the world, vanilla is the favorite flavor; 96 percent of new food companies fail), and quotes from the Talmud – along with deft compliments about the reporter’s intelligent questions.

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Renee Rivera, a lab technician, checks a pressure gauge while running a dairy-free mix through a homogenizing system.

Asked the usual questions (what’s his own favorite Tofutti?), he doesn’t give the answers one might expect. His reply: When he introduces his son, Ethan, to people, he says, “This is my favorite son.” How many does he have? “Just this one.” In other words, he has no favorites.

Another example: So, the challenge for a budding entrepreneur is to find a niche and fill it?

Well, perhaps. “But maybe the reason there’s no barbershop in town is that a barbershop isn’t needed.”

Next question: The two best customers for Tofutti products are Orthodox Jews and people with lactose intolerance? No, there’s a third group, he says: People who simply love the taste of Tofutti.

How many days, how many hours does he work every week? He doesn’t work on Shabbat, so he works six days. But “I don’t have hours.” If he wakes up at night with an idea, he writes it down or talks into a tape recorder. In any case, it’s not real work – he enjoys himself. In fact, the advice he gives young people is: Find something you love, and you won’t mind working 18 hours a day.

His anger flashed at one question. What does he think of Bernard Madoff? “No comment!” he said. But then he added, shaking his head, “I can’t understand. You can sleep in only one bed, eat only one meal at a time…. The Talmud says you have a mission to complete, a purpose on earth….”

Does he have any community activities? He’s the president of the Chabad in Tenafly. Any hobbies? Cooking. “It’s therapy for me.” Does he exercise? Every day. On Shabbat, he walks. His favorite food? Fish. He raises Japanese koi. Naturally, he feeds them tofu. And they thrive on it.

An acquaintance says, “He’s warm, friendly, and shrewd. And his being so outgoing helps account for his success.” Another friend, Meri Pollock of Norwood, says Mintz is “generous – without letting anyone know of his largesse. He gives from his heart – without wanting his name on a building. He prefers anonymity. And he brings out the best in people. Give him a black-and-white picture, and he’ll turn it into color.”

His offices are not imposing: they are, rather, homey. On the walls are all sorts of ads for Tofutti products. There’s a 1985 New Yorker cartoon showing someone with a pushcart selling Tofutti, looking unhappily at two other people with pushcarts – selling Fotutti and Allrutti.

On the wall, over the desk in Mintz’s modest office, hangs a portrait of the Lubavitcher rebbe.