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How A High-Tech Mayo Startup Aims To Take Down Factory Farming

Doing one thing very well has brought big success to this unlikely startup.

How A High-Tech Mayo Startup Aims To Take Down Factory Farming
[Sauce remoulade: HandmadePictures via Shutterstock]

Josh Tetrick has always had a single-minded focus. Up until he was 20, it was becoming a professional football player. But realizing he wasn’t NFL material, he turned his obsession to his studies at Cornell. These days, Tetrick, 34, has a more unusual single-minded focus: Mayonnaise.

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But not just any mayonnaise, his company, Hampton Creek, has engineered a plant-based egg substitute that tastes like the real thing, or as some investors (including Bill Gates) have conceded – tastes even better. Since its founding in 2011, Hampton Creek has raised $30 million in funding.

At its heart, Hampton Creek is a food technology startup. Tetrick has worked with biochemists testing 1,500 different plants to find the perfect strains that emulsify to create the right consistency and flavor of mayonnaise. But he is cornering more than just the vegan market. With an egg substitute that costs 18% less than real eggs, he’s trying to shake up the massive market for egg-based products.

And in less than year, he’s made massive progress. Hampton Creek’s Just Mayo went on store shelves last December and today is sold at countless retailers including Whole Foods, Kroger, Safeway, ShopRite, Target, Costco, and Wal-Mart.

Getting there was, of course, not all smooth sailing. Tetrick, who came into the business with zero food industry experience had to think fast and rebound from some serious blunders to get where he is today.

Find A Realistic Starting Point

After college, Tetrick didn’t know what he wanted to do with his career. He spent a number of years working in sub-Saharan Africa. But his career path didn’t feel like a long-term one. He started talking with his best friend who worked in food policy about the global food issues he’d noticed during his time abroad. From agricultural greenhouse gas emissions to food safety to rising production costs around the world, there were a lot of problems they wanted to tackle. But they needed a way in. “How do you solve these big systemic problems?” he says. “I decided I wanted to attack one of those issues.”

Egg-based products make up a massive multi-billion-dollar market. Tetrick decided to focus on figuring out how to create a plant-based substitute that costs less and doesn’t require factory-farmed chickens. “I wanted to start with one slice of a larger problem because you can’t solve the whole problem,” he says. “How do you make the thing that tastes better and is more affordable?”

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Forget How It’s Always Been Done

When Tetrick set out to find a plant-based substitute for eggs, he had no idea what he was doing. He’d studied sociology, government and law in school and didn’t know the first thing about food science or biochemistry.

When Hampton Creek got a first round of funding to go toward research, Tetrick figured he ought to bring in food scientists who had worked for big food companies like Kellogg’s and General Mills. Surely they would know what to do. But their efforts proved futile. “We got nowhere. The way they were approaching these things was very traditional,” he says. “I probably wasted close to $100,000 on that approach.”

Not long after, Tetrick heard a TED talk given by Homaro Cantu and Ben Roche, chefs using a technology-based molecular gastronomy approach at their Chicago restaurant Moto. Maybe taking a culinary approach could help find him find a solution, he though and reached out to the Moto chefs. But that too didn’t work. By this time, Tetrick had wasted almost half the money he’d raised and made zero progress.

Tetrick was frustrated. He felt stuck. At a party, he found himself talking about his problem with a biochemist he’d just met. His new acquaintance suggested he try to take a biochemistry approach. Tetrick hired him for a month to run experiments and quickly started seeing progress. For the first time, they were able to use plant-based ingredient to make a muffin rise. “The mistake I made when I started was I tried to make a better version of Kellogg’s or General Mills,” says Tetrick. “That’s been a big lesson for us. What would it look like if we just started over, if there were no constraints? It’s an approach that we ask ourselves constantly in all areas of the business.”

Focus On One Thing And Really Nail It

While mayo is Hampton Creek’s mainstay, the company also makes other products including ranch dressing, cookies and cookie dough. In three years, Tetrick predicts mayo will comprise a very small percent of the company’s revenue. Still, focusing on mayo seemed like the best place to start. “Mayonnaise for us is a use case,” he says. For him, mastering a mayo product and getting it on store shelves was the first step to proving that the company could create a plant-based product that tastes as good as egg-based ones and costs less.

The company’s mayo focus came out of a partnership with Heinz that fell through but attracted a little press that caught the eye of Whole Foods. Last fall, Tetrick got a call from a Whole Foods executive who said customers were reaching out asking about the mayo. He decided the company would focus on getting a mayo product ready for market as a way to break into the industry. Three weeks later, he got another call from Whole Foods. The retailer wanted to start selling the mayo in its stores around the country within two months.

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Be Choosy About The Advice You Take

While the research and development of Just Mayo took a year and a half, once Tetrick got the call from Whole Foods, he knew he had to move fast. He’d gotten advice from many experienced people in the industry who told him to start selling at a handful of natural foods stores, then take on one region of Whole Foods and a few years later, once the company was ready for it, tackle bigger retailers like Safeway, breaking into Wal-Mart in maybe a decade.

But when Tetrick had interest from Whole Foods on a national scale, he shifted his single-minded focus from creating the perfect mayonnaise to creating a manufacturing and distribution model that could be scaled and up and running within weeks.

Don’t Be Afraid To Compress Your Goals

Tetrick found inspiration in Chip Heath’s book [i]Made to Stick where he came across the idea of “compressed goals.” Having to think and act fast, Tetrick was learning, could lead to great progress. “When you give people these long long timelines, sometimes you can create work for yourself as opposed to forcing the creativity in your brain that needs a little push to really fly,” he says.

For Hampton Creek, the first compressed goal was getting manufacturing facilities up and running within a month, a task most companies give themselves a year to complete. Hampton Creek didn’t have a year. Whole Foods wanted to have Just Mayo on store shelves within 60 days and Tetrick was determined to make it happen.

Today, less than a year since it first went to market, Just Mayo can be found on the shelves of Wal-Mart stores across the country. “Compress goals is part of our vernacular,” Tetrick says. “It causes you to think more creatively about a problem. It forces the brain to be a lot more creative.”

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About the author

Jane Porter writes about creativity, business, technology, health, education and literature. She's a 2013 Emerging Writing Fellow with the Center For Fiction

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