July 30, 1984 12:00 PM

Rotund David Mintz, 53, beamed as an assistant lined up 50 white-uniformed vendors with their pushcarts. “Beat ’em with a smile,” yelled the drillmaster. “Beat ’em with courtesy. Beat ’em with fewer calories per serving if you have to, but beat ’em.” With that the troops rushed into Manhattan’s streets to take on rival vendors and beat ’em—with Tofutti, a cool, creamy concoction that is turning into the summer’s hottest-selling snack.

Tofutti is Mintz’ proud invention. It looks like ice cream and even tastes like ice cream, coming in chocolate, vanilla, strawberry and nine other flavors. But it has half of ice cream’s calories (only 128 in a four-ounce serving), no cholesterol, and is loaded with vitamins. Dieters and health-food fans love it; so do a lot of other people, who lap up 40,000 gallons of Tofutti every week.

A devout Orthodox Jew and former delicatessen owner and caterer, Mintz came up with Tofutti while searching for an ice cream variant that would not violate his customers’ kosher rules against mixing meat and dairy products in the same meal. Eight years ago he hit on the idea of basing the dessert on an oriental food called tofu, an unripened cheese-like substance made from the juice of soybeans.

“People thought I was crazy,” Mintz says. He’d lock up his deli at 9 p.m. and often work till 4 a.m. making samples, which he handed out free the next day. At first people were suspicious. “Bean curd just doesn’t sound romantic,” says Mintz, adding, “My wife wasn’t too happy. She kept asking, ‘When will you give this up?’ ”

Answer: never. They divorced in 1982—by which time Mintz had perfected his formula for Tofutti and sold the deli and catering businesses to found Tofu Time Inc. Mintz admits to having been obsessed with his invention—but happily so. “A whole new world opened to me,” he enthuses. “I can imagine how Columbus felt.”

In 1984 he married Rachel Avalagon, who commutes with him from their apartment in Brooklyn to work at the company. The success of Tofu Time Inc. has been astonishing. In three years the stuff Mintz could hardly give away now sells in more than 1,000 stores in 14 states and Canada. This month Häagen-Dazs will start hawking Tofutti across the country. And Mintz is currently negotiating with distributors in Japan, a nation of tofu lovers.

At this point Mintz’ only problem seems to be keeping up with the demand for Tofutti. A typical complaint comes from restaurateur Hero Vaswani, who finds himself falling behind the appetites of such celebrity Tofutti lovers as Dyan Cannon, Eli Wallach and wife Anne Jackson, Gloria De Haven and playwright David Rabe. “I’m always getting yelled at if I run out of Tofutti,” says Vaswani. “My customers love it, and when I’m all out they go berserk.”

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