Hit dip's quiet anniversary

Michele's Tofu Tahini & Carrot Spread delivers the taste, but it could use a little ballyhoo.

Whether out of humility or a resolutely tin ear for marketing, Richard Goldberg is letting the 30th anniversary of one of his all-time top hits pass without fanfare or even any particular acknowledgment.

This would be an extraordinary dip, or in many applications, a sandwich spread, with the ungainly name of Michele's Tofu Tahini & Carrot Spread. The name alone, he concedes, is a nonstarter for some people - hard-core tofu-phobes, certainly, and just plain folks who haven't been properly introduced.

This could be remedied, Goldberg is aware, by a variety of measures. For one thing, he could implore the loyal health-food shops (Weaver's Way, Essene, etc.) and local Whole Foods Markets that carry it to pop the lid and sample it a little more with, say, crackers, pita, or his own favorite, baby carrots.

Another thing: He might downplay the tofu part, though that might be considered a profanation in the vegan world. (Like most of his product line, sold under the label Helen's Pure Foods, this dip is strictly vegan.) Tweaking the name could have another drawback: It might seem a gesture of disrespect for the spread's originator, Michele D'Ambrosio.

He could do something else, he says, talking to me from his "plant" in a 1930s-vintage grocery store at 301 Ryers Ave., Cheltenham Village, where his walk-in cooler is in the old meat locker. (Talk about Revenge of the Vegans!)

What he could do is: "I should get those blue stickers to put on the tubs." The kind that say 30th Anniversary Edition, or words to that effect. Well, to that let us just say . . . duh.

Except, Goldberg demurs: "They're pretty costly."

The man has no Web site. He forgets to mention until after two interviews that: "Oh, did I mention that we use fresh garlic and fresh parsley?" And, "Did I mention that it's even local tofu," made in this case by Nature Soy, a booming Chinatown expatriate that now makes its products at 10th and Fairmount.

It has imported tahini, too, the sesame paste that confers the nuttiness. (Tahini has doubled in price recently. But Michele's has stayed around $3.69 an eight-ounce tub.) It has lemon and vinegar, which add the brightness. And carrots, of course, for sweetness.

All of which - robo-couped in the proprietary order dictated by Michele D'Ambrosio - make for an almost magical, and surely addictive spread, at once runnier and lighter, brighter and fresher and sweeter than, well, your standard, sturdier, starchier hummus.

Newcomers encountering the product are mystified. Hmm, are there peanuts in it? (No.) Some sort of whipped cheese? (No.) Sweetners? (Yep, if you count the shredded carrots.)

Whatever the case, the spread has developed an intensely loyal - "rabid," Goldberg calls it - cult following. Let a store run out of stock and the grousing can get a little ugly.

D'Ambrosio used to make it in Overbrook. She'd deliver it to health-food stores about the same time, 1993, that Goldberg bought another business, Helen's Pure Foods, from Helen Popeck, who made popular eggplant salads, various hummus dips, and the like.

Goldberg had struck up a friendship with D'Ambrosio, and when she decided to relocate to Sarasota, Fla., where she still operates Michele's Original Cafe and Market, he signed a licensing deal to make her spread, two of her salad dressings, and her vegetarian hoagie.

The spread is all-natural, and since it's preservative-free, it has a relatively short shelf life (two weeks), says Goldberg, inhibiting wider distribution. Then again, it takes well to freezing, which, he says, he probably ought to look into.

Not that he wants to rush into anything.



Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols.