Q&A: Hampton Creek, creator of egg-free Just Mayo, gains a victory in the food wars
Hampton Creek, a San Francisco food-tech company, was surprised when its arch-adversary, Unilever, recently announced an egg-free spread under its Hellmann’s label.
After all, the food conglomerate had sued Hampton Creek over its egg-free Just Mayo, arguing that you can’t make mayonnaise without breaking some eggs.
Unilever eventually dropped its challenge, but the Food and Drug Administration continued to quibble with wording that the agency said “misbranded” the product.
The feds and foodsters settled semantic differences in December. “Mayo” got to stay on the label, but Hampton Creek had to clarify what it meant by “just,” which could be interpreted as containing “only” what the FDA considers mayonnaise ingredients.
Hampton Creek, a company aiming to inject social and environmental responsibility into food production, now defines “just” as “guided by reason.”
Unilever gave nary a nod to questions about who won the mayo wars, saying only that its eggless Carefully Crafted Dressing & Sandwich Spread was “a natural next step” for consumers increasingly demanding products free of eggs, cholesterol and genetically modified ingredients. It did not use the v-word, and it turns out that Hampton Creek is not overly fond of being niched as “vegan” food, either.
Here’s what Hampton Creek Chief Executive Joshua Tetrick had to say about the latest salvo in the foodie culture wars and the company’s foray into other food products:
Is Hampton Creek declaring victory?
I declare victory for a better food system; that’s the victory, I think.... I want more to do it. I want Kraft to come out with an egg-free mayo too. I want Nestle to come out with a whole range of products that are less carbon-intensive. It ends up accelerating the market for this stuff and ultimately it helps our business. It accelerates our impact, and that’s why we started the company.
Are you worried that a company with deep market reach may out-compete you?
Mayo is less than a third of our sales, but even more importantly than that, we’re not selling to people who are interested in egg-free sauces and dressings. If we were interested in selling to people who are interested in egg-free sauces and dressings, we would have a nice little company of four. It would be me and my dog in a shed or something. There’s not a market for that. The market is 7.3 billion people who want to eat things that are more healthful, more sustainable and affordable and that taste better. So, everything that we do, whether it’s mayo or all of our dressings we’re launching, or muffins, whatever it is, is not framed to cater to happy vegans in San Francisco.
How does Hampton Creek stack up, in terms of market reach?
Think about what we did with Just Mayo, where it was in, and is in, all the major retailers: Walmart, Whole Foods, ShopRite, Kroger; it’s in all of them. And through our relationship with Compass Group, the biggest food service company in the world, it’s in 2,300 public schools, 400+ universities, stadiums. It’s in hospitals. It’s even served in the U.S. Senate.
What we did with Just Mayo, now we’re doing exactly the same thing with all the dressings, bakery products, cookies. And we’ll be doing exactly the same thing with scrambled eggs.... Next year, we’ll probably do something that’s very much the same, except next year we’ll be even more international. About 10% of our sales this year will end up being international, mostly in Asia.... I think in the next two to three years you’ll see a slightly higher percentage growth coming internationally than in the U.S., but there’s still a lot to do in the U.S. and North America. We’re not going to be satisfied until at least one of every single meal served in the United States has something that we believe is more connected to people’s values in it.
Is your market the more savvy consumer, who demands more information about the manner in which their food is produced?
Actually, we’re more interested in serving people who aren’t even thinking about this stuff, or who don’t even have the means to think about this stuff. If you look at 310 million Americans, 7.3 billion people around the world — 99% of people are not thinking about conscious eating. Just like we’re not always thinking about conscious use of energy. Either we’re too busy, or we don’t have enough money.... We’re more interested in how we figure out a way to get to those people, but not motivate them because they’re motivated to eat more consciously, but because they want a pancake that’s delicious and affordable. And if we can give them a pancake that tastes better and is more affordable, they’ll do it. And frankly, we really could care less whether they realize they’re doing it or not, but that they are. That’s kind of the model and philosophy of the company.
How has the lawsuit and FDA dispute affected the company?
That ended up being really good for everything that we stand for.... It galvanized people around the word “just” and what it means. It ended up leading to a really important decision that the FDA made in allowing us to keep our name. It turned out to be an important thing for us.
Did you always mean “just” as in “justice,” or was there a bit of maneuvering to redefine it?
From the inception, we’ve always thought it had these kind of multiple meanings.... One of the stipulations that we have for keeping the name is we have to define it on the front of the label, which ends up being a great way for us to share why we started.... It gave us thousands of opportunities to share why we started. And that’s always good.
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