Inside Silicon Valley’s Mayo Marketing Madness
The war on eggs started back in the ’70s, not with the company formerly known as Hampton Creek but with a little café-grocery store in Los Angeles.
This story is adapted from Technically Food: Inside Silicon Valley’s Mission to Change What We Eat, by Larissa Zimberoff.
IN 2013, THE San Francisco–based startup Hampton Creek, today known as Eat Just, launched its first product—an eggless, plant-based mayo. The press release claimed it was “the world's first food product to utilize a plant protein that consistently outperforms an animal protein.” This, even though soybeans had been mined for their functional capabilities in foods—for both animal feed and human nutrition—as far back as 1940. Regardless, journalists went wild.
It was like people had never seen a condiment before. The Guardian wrote that founder Josh Tetrick wanted to “disrupt the world food industry by replacing eggs with plants.” CBS News noted that the startup “tried 300 different kinds of plants'' before hitting on the formula for this eggless mayonnaise.
Tetrick first pitched the company to investors with what he admitted was a brief deck promising to build the world’s largest plant database in order to bring plant-based foods to market. To get there, Tetrick ultimately wooed over Big Data employees from Google and Stanford. TechCrunch announced that the company had analyzed the properties of more than 4,000 plants in order to find 13 with the “ideal traits needed for better consistency, taste, and lower cost.” This plant database, which was initially touted as having potential for licensing deals, has yet to come to fruition, and those Big Data guys have since left to start other companies.
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It was a prime example of a new era of do-good food missionaries. They promise to reverse climate change and end our reliance on eating animals for protein—and then race to raise funds, hire employees, and, to hit those goals faster, sell the promise to the consumer.
The thing is, in this case, eggless mayo already existed. Vegenaise—a mashup of the words vegan and mayonnaise—was first developed in the mid-1970s by Follow Your Heart in California’s San Fernando Valley.
Before becoming the vegan product powerhouse it is today—it sells salad dressings, cheese, and yogurt (among other things) made from coconut, potato starch, canola, and more—Follow Your Heart was a natural foods market with a cozy vegetarian café inside. The café sold freshly made fruit juices, vegetable soups, and an avocado, tomato, and sprout sandwich that featured a thick swipe of tangy, rich mayo. But instead of eggy Hellman’s, the cafe was using a faux mayo called Lecinaise, made by a guy named Jack Patton. It was made from soy lecithin—basically a fatty emulsifier—and Bob Goldberg, cofounder and CEO of Follow Your Heart, used it on everything. He called it his “secret ingredient.” The creamy white spread was so crucial to the café’s success that Goldberg estimates that at one point the café had purchased about 40,000 pounds of the stuff.
But Goldberg began hearing a rumor that there were eggs in this supposedly eggless mayo. He reached out to Patton, the owner of Lecinaise, who assured him that it was egg-, preservative-, and sugar-free. Patton even sent Goldberg a letter verifying the accuracy of his label.
Goldberg was reassured. The California Department of Food and Agriculture was not. In the dark of night, the agency raided Patton’s Lecinaise facilities and found workers soaking the labels off regular mayonnaise to use and sell under the Lecinaise brand name. (Patton was tried and convicted of fraud, earning a 30-day jail term and a fine of $18,500.)
Goldberg was floored. Not only did his secret ingredient have eggs, but it was also full of sugar and preservatives. His popular whole wheat sandwiches would become dry husks. So Goldberg looked to other manufacturers for help. “They all insisted that there was no way to make mayo without eggs,” he says.
Goldberg reluctantly tried Hain Imitation Mayonnaise, but it was a subpar product that lacked emulsification—the key to flavor. "We tried various ways of making it more flavorful, adding sweeteners or vinegars or lemon juice, but the results were always very disappointing,” he says.
In his home kitchen, he blended up batch after batch of his own mayo, trying to achieve what he called a perfect balance of sweet, sour, and savory flavors. Characteristics that “come together to produce synergy and result in magic,” Goldberg once said of the smooth, creamy spread. Finally, a combination of almond oil and tofu scraps delivered the taste he wanted. Unfortunately, when he first brought it to market in 1977, grocers didn’t stock it in the refrigerated section as they should have, and the oils separated. Follow Your Heart stopped selling at retail locations, but the café continued to use it, and customers continued to ask when they could buy some to take home.
The founders of Follow Your Heart shelved their dreams of making their foods available commercially until 1988, when a funky grocery store called Trader Joe’s came knocking. Could the team produce private label versions of some of their foods? The deal meant they could finally buy the necessary equipment and lease a building. They changed the recipe to include canola oil and hoped that consumers would be able to locate a refrigerated product. They were, and are: It’s still Follow Your Heart’s number one seller, available in 10 varieties and dozens of countries.
There isn’t much difference between Tetrick’s mayo and Vegenaise. Just Mayo is shelf-stable, thanks to a little bit of modified food starch. While Just Mayo contains a fractional amount of pea protein to replace some of the protein from a real egg and to help with mouthfeel, the main ingredient in Just Mayo is the same one in Vegenaise: canola oil. So why did the world go bananas for a condiment that more or less already existed?
Tetrick, who grew up in Alabama, speaks with a deep Southern drawl that stands out in Silicon Valley. It worked magic with the press. He spun a yarn. He gave good story. He proclaimed that he was going to “make the egg obsolete.” Do not underestimate the power of such a bold boast. Tetrick was one of the earliest founders to propose ending our reliance on animals for their protein because of their poor ratio of input to output. He explained to journalists that feeding a chicken grains in order to lay an egg required more energy than what was needed to grow a single crop of vegetables to feed humans the same amount of calories.
This quantified sustainability. Big-name investors, including Bill Gates, Peter Thiel, and Khosla Ventures helped. Social media went crazy, and it was as if Vegenaise never existed. But it did, and Goldberg, its inventor, is an all-around good guy who was fine with being out of the spotlight. More mayo sales for anyone, he says, philosophically, would eventually mean more sales for his own products.
Now past 70, Goldberg wears a uniform of shorts and sandals and sports a long, gray ponytail. The only flashy thing about him is his red Tesla with the license plate VEGNASE. Goldberg doesn’t hold media events. In fact, he didn’t hire PR until around the time of Just’s mayonnaise launch. When it did, Follow Your Heart went out with its own story. “We couldn’t afford not to,” Goldberg told me in one of our many conversations. “It felt like a personal affront. Every time we saw an article about this amazing new incredible mayo without eggs, we were incredulous that no one would even Google to find out that our product had been out there for decades.”
Then, in 2014, Unilever (the owner of Hellmann’s mayonnaise) filed a lawsuit against the startup for using the word “mayo” on its label. More awkwardly, in 2016, Tetrick was accused of artificially inflating sales by instructing his employees to buy up their own product. (The company denied it, and the SEC and DOJ ultimately dropped the case.) Shortly after this damaging news, Target removed the brand in all of its stores because of supposed food safety concerns. As for the lawsuit, Unilever eventually withdrew it because of a backlash of bad press. The FDA, however, was still on the case. The agency eventually came to an agreement with Just to relabel its mayo, removing an illustration of an egg and adding the words “salad dressing.” In 2017, in an attempt to distance itself from the bad press, Tetrick’s company changed its name from the rustic Hampton Creek to the simpler (but more difficult to use in a sentence) Eat Just. In 2018, Just finally launched a “scrambled” egg-less egg product based on mung beans.
So how did the mayonnaise market somehow become a target for disruption? Well, the condiment market is huge, and mayo is king. In 2020 it pulled in $1.06 billion, an 18.3 percent growth over the previous year, says Nielsen. (Granted: pandemic.) Ketchup, mayo’s nearest competitor, is close, but it’s still not top dog.
And the ingredient list for the traditional version—eggs, lemon juice, oil, and salt—is short and sweet. Some might say easy. Reverse engineering a product already on the shelves has been happening since the dawn of supermarkets.
For a startup like Just, which really wanted to make that vegan egg scramble and to tout its nascent mega-plant database, a "new" condiment was a way to show investors that something was happening, even if someone else had made pretty much the same thing decades before.
Excerpted from the new book Technically Food: Inside Silicon Valley’s Mission to Change What We Eat, by Larissa Zimberoff, published by Abrams Press. © 2021 Larissa Zimberoff
Story link: https://www.wired.com/story/inside-silicon-valleys-mayo-marketing-madness/#intcid=_wired-homepage-right-rail_76f82862-9f5d-4e95-af4d-0bf0033c1234_popular4-1
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