Food For Thought
Josh Tetrick is a man on a mission - a young, enterprising, former linebacker from the deep south, whom at 35 has serious ambitions to change the way the world eats - a sentiment we have no qualms with, given the rising rates of diabetes and heart disease world-wide.
As CEO and founder of the innovative food company, Just inc. formerly Hampton Creek, Tetrick’s mission is to disrupt the food chain and offer healthy plant-based alternatives to the general public, such as egg-free mayo and egg-free cookies.
Famed billionaire investors such as Marc Benioff, Vinod Khosla, Bill Gates and Li Ka-Shing have all contracted Tetrick’s feverish enthusiasm for a greener future and handed over large sums to enable his vision. But it hasn’t all been smooth sailing, since doing this interview back in 2015, four of the food startup’s five board members have quit, and now mired in controversy and lawsuits, Tetrick is battling all the odds to try and change the world.
Your background and history are in quite a juxtaposition; in one article you talked about your years as a linebacker, frequenting places like McDonald’s and KFC, characterised by a “deep rabbit hole of denial.”, then you went on to say, “I was struggling in my life finding what I actually wanted to do. I had a dream of being a professional athlete, [but] I wasn’t good enough. I spent a while trying to find my way in Africa.” After that period you emerged as a conscientious activist for global change on so many levels, what led to this change?
When I was in Africa, I knew I was doing some good, and it was nice to say that to my friends back in the states and such, but I knew in my heart that I wasn’t making a global impact and it was important to me to really make a big change in the world. So, I came back to the US and started to think about other ways I could do so.
What did you learn from your time in Africa?
It was during my time in Africa that I first started to notice some of the problems with the food system. The day that people get their paychecks is the day that they also spend extra money on food that is bad for their bodies, bad for the environment, and maybe not the most in-line with their values too. It struck me that it shouldn’t be like this; there should be good food that is also sustainable, affordable and tastes good. That is a big part of it actually; if it isn’t cheap and doesn’t taste good, nobody – not my Dad in St. Louis nor my friends in Liberia – is going to switch to the good choice.
“Cigarette boxes have warning labels… yet people still smoke. What if we looked at cigarettes and started over? What would that look like? That is what we’re doing with food. It’s less about warnings and more about making something better.”
It seems somewhere in the supply chain for food a huge amount of waste is going on. But the customer doesn’t see that, they’re not aware of the damage it is doing. Do you ever get frustrated by just how much we don’t see of this story?
I think we just have to make it ridiculously easy for regular folks everywhere to do the right thing. Rather than get up on soapboxes, just create options that taste great, are better, and people can actually afford. Cigarette boxes have warning labels… yet people still smoke. What if we looked at cigarettes and started over? What would that look like? That is what we’re doing with food. It’s less about warnings and more about making something better.
Perhaps the alternative food model and the public image of it got off to a bad start; when you thought of organic or healthy alternatives people immediately thought of vegans, hippies, or un-tasty overpriced niche foods. It just got lost in the highly monetised PR war on food. How have we changed that or can we change that conversation or image?
We purposely do not market ourselves as vegan or organic at all. We don’t even have vegan on our labels. It’s not about that for us, and to serve a niche market is not having the impact that we want to have at all. We’re really careful about our messaging which is part of why we say we’re making food healthier and more affordable for everyone, everywhere, and we truly believe that.
Thinking about the energy debate, I am reminded of the hype around electric cars. But that was muted very early on and still hasn’t really found its way in the mainstream market. Are you confident that changes on your end will be able to be rolled out to the mainstream – you talk about your relationship with Compass Group and your roll-out with Wal-Mart and Target. Perhaps you can elaborate?
Electric cars have actually become more and more mainstream. Look at Tesla; they’re gaining market share from other luxury models and hybrids like the Prius are still a top-selling model after almost 15 years on the market. That’s what we’re doing too, we’re not looking to be an alternative to current brands/products, just better versions. Compass is a great vehicle for us to drive our name. They’re incredibly passionate and believe in what we’re doing very much. In fact, they have completely swapped out Hellmann’s mayo’ from NYT cafeteria, Harvard Law, and other hospitals across the country for ours. Target and Walmart have been great to get our product in front of a whole group of consumers that might not otherwise have had access to us.
Why such a crusade for scrambled eggs, what is it about eggs that have managed to capture Hampton Creek’s imagination?
It’s not about eggs. It’s about making it easy for regular folks to do the right thing. It just so happens eggs are one thing we’re working on. But we’re looking at other things in food too – cakes, sour cream, food dye, even custards. Anything that we can make healthier, more sustainable, and more affordable with plants, we will tackle.
An incredible round of investors have believed in your idea and your business, such as Marc Benioff, Bill Gates, Li Ka-Shing, Peter Thiel, and Vinod Khosla – securing deals with eleven Fortune 500 companies in just two years. What did those early conversations with investors look like and why do you think you have captured their imaginations? You’ve said that you gained initial investment from Vinod Khosla because you explained to him the global food system and just how bad it was.
These people all care and all see the massive market that is ripe for disruption. It’s a massive opportunity business-wise, but also a big chance to do some good. For example, Li Ka-Shing really cares about creating a better world to leave for his grandchildren. Food is really unsafe, especially in Asia, and he cares about making it better for them.
What kind of effect has technology had on your business, and on the global food model as it is?
At our heart and soul, we are a technology company. It is how we have been able to move so quickly with our R&D, in our prototyping and screening of plant proteins. It is essential to our future products and growth. I think technology is doing great things not only for us, but other food-tech companies too – and is solving other urgent needs across the world as well.
What do you make of McDonald’s very public decline, does it mean anything to you?
I think consumers are ready for change. The old food giants are going to have to innovate and give them better options, or they will be out like the horse and buggy was when the car came along.
You say that there are 400,000 species of plants out there and that 92% of them haven’t been looked at. Why do you think we overlook plants so much?
Well, I think part of it is that we became so used to and addicted to two plants: corn and soy. And we just forgot about this whole giant world of other plants out there that are ready to be used. 92% of the world’s plants haven’t been looked at for their applicability in food – and that’s what we’re doing now.
“[on McDonald’s decline]... I think consumers are ready for change. And the old food giants are going to have to innovate and give them better options, or they will be out like the horse and buggy was when the car came along.”
Unilever initially filed a lawsuit against you which they later dropped. Do you think this is just the beginning of a strong resentment to such “healthy” competition?
The Unilever lawsuit was actually one of the best things that ever happened to us; 6 weeks of free PR, our sales went up, and thousands of people who might not otherwise have heard of us became familiar with our story. We’ve had many people say they switched to Just Mayo simply because of the lawsuit! Honestly, we think that the Unilever folks are good people. They have a great pledge to sustainability too. We founded Hampton Creek to open our eyes to the problems the world faces and the lawsuit only validated why.
What is next in the food revolution that you hope to see, in this growing fight for sanity in the food chain?
There are a lot of exciting things happening in this space right now, but if it isn’t cheap and doesn’t taste good, it probably won’t win. One thing we’re especially excited about is the prospect of creating inexpensive, highly nutritious and easily transportable “protein snacks” for third-world countries. Just one thing in our product development line-up, but one that we hope could make a big difference.