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How Hampton Creek's Plant-Based Foods Have Scrambled The Grocery Aisle

From yolk-free mayo to chickenless "eggs," Hampton Creek CEO Josh Tetrick has a vision for a new kind of food chain.

How Hampton Creek's Plant-Based Foods Have Scrambled The Grocery Aisle

[Photo: Joel Stans]

From Silicon Valley to SoMa, the Bay Area is packed with blockbuster companies that were built on little more than a good idea. But there’s only one that was built on a condiment. Three years ago, Hampton Creek’s Just Mayo, which swaps a protein derived from Canadian yellow peas for the eggs that help emulsify oil into sandwich-spreadable goodness, appeared in Whole Foods (and, later, Walmart and Kroger) stores across the nation. Among an increasingly influential coalition of shoppers—ethics-minded consumers, along with vegans and people with food allergies—it was an instant hit. To a casual observer, vegan mayonnaise hardly seemed like the opening salvo in a war to capture supermarket-aisle space from giants like Unilever, Kraft, and Nestlé. To Josh Tetrick, the 36-year-old founder of San Francisco–based Hampton Creek, it was that and more. A high school football star from Birmingham, Alabama, who still speaks with a Southern drawl, Tetrick sees the entire global food system as an opportunity for the kind of rip-it-up-and-start-again thinking at which Silicon Valley excels. Or as he puts it, flashing a wolfish grin, "I want us to be the biggest food company on the planet. And I want us to do some good at the same time."

His plan? To create a whole range of high-tech, plant-based products that use fewer resources from farm to factory to table, cost less, and are both healthier and tastier than traditional products. The company deploys a three-part process: identifying underutilized, low-impact crops (like sorghum, which requires little water); applying computer data to determine if any proteins they contain might be functionally useful in food (the way the yellow pea turned out to be a great emulsifier); and then using advanced cooking techniques (via a dream team of Michelin-starred chefs) to create tasty recipes for packaged products.

Mayo is just the beginning of Hampton Creek’s plan to carry the natural-foods zeitgeist into the middle aisles of supermarkets everywhere. Walmart stores nationwide recently rolled out Hampton Creek’s new salad dressings and will soon carry the company’s cookie dough and pancake mix; they join a line of flavored mayos including sriracha and chipotle. Even more significant is the five-year agreement Hampton Creek has signed to supply these items and more to Compass Group, the planet’s biggest food-services company—which dishes up some 4 billion meals a year to clients ranging from universities and hospitals to IBM and the United States Senate. (According to Compass executive vice president Susie Weintraub, the company saw in Hampton Creek an important opportunity to position itself as healthy and mission-driven.) Nearly four dozen products are in the pipeline for the near future, including pastas, cookies, cake mixes, and, most impressively, totally eggless scrambled eggs. In the long-term, the company has plans for some 500 other foods. "When I went to San Francisco and met Josh and his team, I was pretty blown away," says Hampton board member Kathleen Sebelius, former governor of Kansas, and the Obama administration’s secretary of health and human services until 2014. "They were rethinking the entire food chain."

Dressed in a blue T-shirt and jeans, Tetrick—who is himself a vegan but is fundamentally allergic to using any kind of food co-op–style language to describe either his eating habits or his business—is perched on a stool at a long counter in the temporary open space that houses most of his 130 employees, up from just 62 a year ago. His 8-year-old golden retriever, Jake, is sprawled out nearby. Tetrick’s vibe is Matthew McConaughey–ish and easygoing, an affect that friends suggest he uses to his advantage. "He walks into a room with his Southern accent and his T-shirt and everybody underestimates him," says Tetrick’s friend Andrew Zimmern (the chef and Travel Channel personality is a formal Hampton Creek adviser). "A lot of smart people I know need to let you know how smart they are right away; Josh is okay if you never think he’s smart."

Earlier this year, the company moved from a gritty storefront office to this vast, 95,000-square-foot headquarters in a former bread factory in San Francisco’s Mission District. Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, the architecture firm that Steve Jobs commissioned to build Pixar Animation Studios, is set to renovate the space into a hive of test kitchens, production lines, and R&D facilities—but for now those functions are all spread across a large room on the second floor that resembles a school cafeteria. Tetrick, who usually works at a counter in the middle of the still-raw space, grabs a nearby football and toys with it as he spins out his vision for the company. "We have 7.4 billion people on the planet right now," he says. "There’s going to be, like, 9 billion people in 30 years. I want us to have some sort of positive impact on at least one meal a day, whether people are eating once a day or seven times a day. And I want Kraft to be inspired by what we’re doing and do better, too."

According to data from Chicago-based market research firm IRI, which tracks grocery-store sales at a wide range of outlets (though not Whole Foods), Just Mayo’s sales leaped from $4.6 million to $11.8 million in the past year. That’s still just a tiny fraction of the multibillion-dollar condiment industry. But Hampton Creek’s deep bench of prominent investors, expansion into an ever-growing array of products, global ambitions, and its strong food-service business have clearly made at least one traditional food giant a little nervous. Unilever, which makes (depending on which coast you live closer to) Hellmann’s and Best Foods mayonnaise, filed suit in October 2014 against Hampton Creek, alleging false advertising. The core issue, Unilever asserted, was that a product called Just Mayo should, by definition, be made with eggs. Though Unilever dropped its suit two months later (Unilever declined to comment about the lawsuit for this story), last August the FDA initiated an investigation into Hampton Creek’s labeling, and the American Egg Board, which is appointed by the USDA, launched a campaign that seemed designed to, ahem, smear the upstart brand. By the end of last year, though, the USDA launched an investigation into the egg board’s efforts, and Hampton Creek and the FDA came to an agreement. The product and name stayed—the only concession Hampton Creek made was to add language to labels defining Just as a reference to "justice."

The Unilever suit and FDA probe turned out to be a major boon to the young company. "It gave us a crazy opportunity to tell our story again and again and again to millions of people all across the world," says Tetrick, who also has a penchant for taking out full-page ads in The New York Times to tout the company’s mission. "It increased sales, but more than that, it gave us this window to be, like: All right, this is who we are. And we could say it over and over again through a gazillion different people and tons of different media."

The kicker? Unilever came out with its own eggless, mayo-like product last February, Hellmann’s Carefully Crafted Sandwich Spread. According to a Hellmann’s spokesperson, the new condiment is aimed at consumers whose diets are becoming more plant-based and organic. "I love it," Tetrick says, with a booming laugh. "Food is a trillion-dollar market. There’s room for more than one singular company."

In a lablike space on the far side of the room, equipped with industrial mixers, restaurant-quality ovens, and a walk-in fridge, a half dozen apron-wearing chefs are cooking up the future. More specifically, they’re knocking together an assortment of Hampton products for me to sample: photogenic little vanilla cupcakes, a batch of oven-fresh cookies, crudités to dip into various dressings (the Caesar is particularly good), spicy Asian-inspired noodles, and a perfect stack of fluffy, eggless pancakes. "We have six fucking Michelin-starred chefs here," says VP of product development Chris Jones. "We’d better be able to make a pancake!"

Jones—who looks exactly like a hipster chef should, in a blue bandanna, thick-frame glasses, and stubble—arrived at Hampton Creek in 2012, just as the company was beginning to pivot from its first, unsuccessful idea. Tetrick and a partner had developed a concept for an egglike, plant-based protein that they would sell to large food manufacturers as a bespoke ingredient, and had been working with a top condiment brand (he can’t say which) that was interested in making a sandwich spread. When that deal fell through, it seemed natural for Hampton Creek to make its own product. It needed to taste really good, though—and to make sure that happened, the company tapped Jones, the chef de cuisine at Chicago’s pioneering molecular-gastronomy restaurant, Moto. "I put my luggage down, started up the mixer, and began making mayo," Jones says of his arrival. "It was just this cycle of trying new proteins to see if we can make the texture, the flavor, the feel better. That was the initial phase."

Tetrick had discovered Moto’s brand of science-based cooking when he happened to catch a TED Talk by the restaurant’s visionary chef Homaro Cantu and his dessert wizard Ben Roche. "They were making things like sushi printed on edible paper and a beet burger that bled," Tetrick says. The recipes for these all-new food experiences required science-driven cooking techniques—much like the team at Hampton Creek uses now.

Today, eight Moto vets, including Roche, work at Hampton Creek, following Moto’s closure this past February after the sudden, tragic death of Cantu. By combining Hampton Creek’s new ingredients (yellow-pea emulsifier, the cookie-dough sorghum) with their high-tech cooking abilities, the chefs are exploring a whole variety of variables in foods—from new flavors and nutrition to shelf stability and production cost. "They’re more like software developers than traditional culinary masters," says Tetrick.

Still, Hampton Creek’s current line is driven at least as much by old-fashioned cooking as it is by scientific innovation. "I look at it almost like it’s a chop shop," Jones says. "We’re taking out some of the things that are bad and putting some great things back into it." Consider a product like their ranch dressing, which just launched in Walmart and Target. According to Tetrick, the dressing’s "system," which incorporates the recipe, the processing, and the manufacturing, is about 12% to 15% unique to Hampton Creek. "That’s not insignificant," he says. "That percentage enables us to develop a product that meets our philosophy—clean taste, doesn’t have a lot of junk in it, affordable price, better for the environment."

But there’s at least one imminent product that begins to approach science-fiction levels of interesting. It’s the highly convincing scrambled-egg alternative called, well, Scramble. According to Jones, Scramble is made out of "almost 100%" new stuff—based on a legume that Tetrick simply calls "the magic bean." The idea isn’t to replace the eggs in your home, but rather, Jones says "the big, 50-pound bag of eggs that live in the food-service world. You look at how they’re produced and where they come from—there’s gotta be a better way."

To demonstrate, Roche pours what looks like yellow pancake batter into a hot nonstick pan over medium heat. "Ideally, this is going to work the same way your normal chicken egg does," he says. As the liquid coats the pan in a thin sheet, the edges begin to slightly soufflé. He gives it a little stir with a spatula and the Scramble shifts from liquid to solid curds in the same alchemical way that real scrambled eggs transform. "The gel speed is really fast," he says. "You never really think about that when you’re cooking, but eggs cook really quickly—almost immediately."

He plates the Scramble and seasons it with some salt that naturally contains sulfur compounds, adding a dash of eggy flavor. To the eye, what we’re looking at couldn’t be anything but scrambled eggs. It sheers with the side of the fork like an egg, chews like an egg, and—this is a testament to the power of texture—tastes reasonably egglike, if a bit grassy. "This is by no means a finished product," says Roche. "The ideal is it would taste like nothing. So people could add whatever flavor they wanted."

To Jones, what Hampton Creek is doing marks a foundational shift in how we cook and eat. "Josh always laughs at me when I say this, but we’re still using the same recipes Escoffier wrote down, like, 100 years ago," Jones says. "What we’re doing here is going to new food planets and seeing what’s there that we can use. There are 400,000 plants and species and subspecies out there. What do they all do?"

If Tetrick has an entrepreneurial hero, it’s Elon Musk. A dozen or so copies of Ashlee Vance’s Musk biography are stacked on an office bookshelf, and there’s one on almost every staffer’s desk. It’s no coincidence: Musk’s Tesla Motors is a capitalistic enterprise built on the idea that two of humanity’s main systems—transportation and energy—are broken, presenting vast business and social-benefit opportunities. Tetrick sees Hampton Creek as applying that same kind of thinking to food and agriculture.

The seeds for his vision were sown in his twenties when, after law school, he went to sub-Saharan Africa on a Fulbright scholarship and ended up working there on a variety of social-good projects for seven years. "Helping kids get off the street and into a school in South Africa, working with farmers in northern Kenya, or helping attract foreign investment, those things sound very good," he says. "They actually had little to no impact." The mind-boggling scale of the issues he observed led Tetrick to believe that the core systems we take for granted—especially food—just weren’t working for huge swaths of humanity. "Not only are kids going to school malnourished, which means they can’t think, farmers in northern Kenya are dealing with climate change," he says. "Here, people eat in ways that are degrading their own bodies and also degrading the planet. So it’s a multifaceted problem."

He returned to the U.S. and, in 2011, launched Hampton Creek with his friend Josh Balk. They were based out of a tiny Los Angeles apartment that Tetrick was living in with Jake the dog. He invested his life savings—around $30,000—and wrote up a pitch deck, looking for venture financing. The original idea was for the plant-based egg substitute that Hampton Creek would sell to food giants. One VC bit: Sun Microsystems founder Vinod Khosla wrote Tetrick a check for $500,000.

Hampton Creek founder and CEO Josh Tetrick used a high-profile lawsuit by Unilever to share his company’s story with the public.[Photo: Anastasiia Sapon]

By early 2012, Tetrick had moved Hampton Creek to San Francisco, had given up trying to work with other food brands, and was starting to manufacture Just Mayo out of a makeshift 2,500-square-foot space in the SoMa neighborhood. A local-news crew did a segment on the vegan-mayo upstart, which somehow ended up on the front page of the Drudge Report. "That’s not always the best place to be," Tetrick says. "But for 48 hours, I was getting calls from the media from all over the world. And then I got an email, which I probably still have, from a guy named Errol who was formerly the head grocery buyer at Whole Foods. And he was like, ‘Can you tell me more about what your company does?’ " Whole Foods began stocking Just Mayo nationwide three months later.

Tetrick has since lined up more investors, from Facebook cofounder Eduardo Saverin to Google DeepMind cofounder Mustafa Suleyman and Li Ka-shing, one of Asia’s richest men, who is helping the company expand aggressively into that region. "Hampton Creek is the rare combination of a great market potential paired with a great entrepreneur," says Yahoo cofounder Jerry Yang, another investor. The company has taken on more than $120 million to date, valuing it at $1 billion.

On a large monitor in front of a young computational biologist in Hampton Creek’s new headquarters, an array of brightly colored dots hover in virtual, three-dimensional space. Blue dots represent an actual scrambled egg, dots of other colors represent various versions of the Scramble. The 3-D space represents texture, encompassing six parameters, including hardness, resilience, and sponginess. "See those gray ones?" researcher Jonathan Mung asks about some dots that are floating in the vague vicinity of the real-egg ones. "We added an enzyme, which made them jump up here."

One key difference between Hampton Creek and, say, Unilever is the emphasis each puts on this kind of approach. At Hampton Creek, data underpins everything. The "technology team," as the R&D crew are called, is led by two scientists—chief of R&D Jim Flatt, a biochemical engineer, and vice president of R&D Lee Chae, a computational biologist who specializes in using machine learning to identify potentially useful patterns in the countless proteins found in plants. They are creating a massive data library of plants and their potential functions in food, such as emulsification, structure, and nutrition. The idea is to create a monumental data library of plants and their potential roles in food production—fodder for experiments by the in-house chefs. They’re still in the early days, though. "This field is really, really young," says DeepMind’s Suleyman. "It’s going to take decades to really nail it, but the progress that they’ve made in three years is superimpressive."

Hampton Creek has made a major investment in automating the process with a robotic, four-stage lab, which it says will be up and running by the end of the year. "We call it Blackbird," says Tetrick, for no other reason than "it gets everyone stoked to have it called something cool." The Blackbird devices, which screen plants for biological activity and interactions, are similar to machines used for pharmaceutical research—but are new in the food-development world. Chae gestures at a seemingly high-tech gizmo in the current nonrobotic lab: It measures firmness. "This is a modern-day food-science machine," he says. "It takes hours upon hours to characterize a sample. We’re going to take that, miniaturize it, speed it up, and multiply it so we can run, say, a dozen samples at a time."

It’s a prospect that the scientists believe can make the kind of massive-scale difference that Tetrick is promising. "We’ve already had some good discoveries," says Flatt. "But this?" He pauses and shakes his head with wonder. "Gosh, imagine if we generate knowledge at 50 to 100 times faster? How many new products is that going to enable?"

And in the nearer term, there’s one simple change you can probably expect. "We’re thinking about actually changing our name to Just," Tetrick says, "because it’s come to symbolize both elements of what we stand for: fairness and doing some good, and free of unnecessary crap."

"Plus," he adds, with a smile, "we got a lot of free marketing out of that Unilever thing."

[Sidebar Illustrations: Adam Cruft; Source Images: Leigh Vogel/Getty Images (Sebelius); Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for SOBEWFF® (Zimmern); Theo Wargo/WireImage/Getty Images (McCartney); Kevin Mazur/WireImage/Getty Images (Carter); Greg Gayne/Fox (Tosi); Karim Jaafar/AFP/Getty Images (Gates)]

A version of this article appeared in the September issue of Fast Company magazine.

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