Silicon Valley’s Food King

Photograph by Matthew Reamer

Four years ago, Josh Tetrick was grasping for a new career when a buddy who worked at the Humane Society mentioned that more than a trillion eggs are produced around the world each year. The vast majority of them come from factory farms, where chickens are kept locked in cages and pumped with antibiotics. And a third of these eggs go into products we don't always associate with them: processed foods like muffins and cookies. "He was trying to get all the big food companies to switch to cage-free eggs," says Tetrick. But Tetrick had another idea. Rather than convince manufacturers to buy better eggs, what if a food company made its products just as well without using eggs at all?

Tetrick's San Francisco start-up, Hampton Creek, uses plant-based proteins to make everyday foods that don't rely on the destructive practices of large-scale animal farming. The company's most popular product, an eggless spread called Just Mayo, is on shelves at 15,000 stores worldwide. An eggless chocolate-chip cookie dough, Just Cookies, was released last summer. In December, Tetrick announced $90 million in new investment from a star-studded lineup that includes Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang and the richest man in China, Li Ka-Shing. "It has been a fucking surreal year," Tetrick says.

The 35-year-old entrepreneur has no science background and no formal training in business or food manufacturing. He made the football team at West Virginia University as a linebacker who could bench-press 225 pounds for 23 reps. When he realized he wasn't good enough to play in the NFL, he transferred to Cornell, earned a law degree at Michigan, and spent the better part of seven years working on education and food policy in sub-Saharan Africa. That's where he discovered how hard it is to feed the global poor, especially with sufficient protein, without harming the environment.

In January 2012, Tetrick began experimenting with plant proteins that could do the job of eggs in baked goods. In a former girlfriend's L.A. apartment, he tried using high-protein bean flours in muffin recipes. "There was literally batter splattered all over the ceiling," his ex-girlfriend Jill Hundenski recalls. "Dirty dishes were in my bathtub." Tetrick hit the streets of Beverly Hills to taste-test an admittedly gummy first run of plain muffins. "You could tell by the way people's jaws moved when they chewed," Tetrick says. "It didn't look right." But the idea (and eventually the muffin) was good enough to raise $2 million in venture capital. That summer, he opened an office and hired some kitchen help — a former contestant on Top Chef, an Otis Spunkmeyer baking expert, and a food scientist — to identify proteins that could outperform bean flours.

Tetrick's team had developed prototypes of its mayonnaise and cookie dough when Whole Foods called, asking for a product in September 2013. Hampton Creek delivered its first shipment of Just Mayo two months later. The label made no mention of veganism, global health, or the environment. "The 'good thing' doesn't win when you pound it into people's heads," Tetrick explains. "The good thing wins when you make it better-tasting and more affordable."

Hampton Creek's rapid success has also caught the attention of traditional food manufacturers. Last fall, the company that owns Hellmann's filed a lawsuit claiming Just Mayo violated the federal definition of mayonnaise, but then quickly dropped it after more than 100,000 people signed a petition supporting Tetrick. Meanwhile, a team of biochemists is analyzing every edible plant possible to expand Hampton Creek's offerings; a high-protein dried pasta is probably up next. "I know mayo isn't going to change the world," Tetrick says. "But maybe it's a symbolic step toward thinking about our problems in new ways."

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