Josh Tetrick, CEO of Hampton Creek Foods, cooks egg substitute for Li Ka-shing, Asia's richest man and an investor in the company. Credit: Hampton Creek Foods
Hampton Creek Foods' signature product may be called Just Mayo, but CEO Josh Tetrick, 34, wants to do a lot more than sell a vegan version of the creamy condiment: He wants to remove eggs from our food chain.
It might sound simple enough, but it's easy to forget how many products contain eggs: most baked goods, ice cream, some noodles, most breaded vegetables and meats, meatballs and, of course, mayonnaise. Tetrick hopes that one day his company, which is based in San Francisco, will help both manufacturers and individuals take eggs out of the equation and opt for plant-based substitutes. Just Mayo already does this by using ground yellow peas instead of eggs in its formula.
Why the war on eggs? Tetrick insists he has nothing against them. "It's not a war on eggs; it's about the fact that food generally should just be better," he told us. "Part of the reason why healthy and sustainable food doesn't rule the world is because it's always expensive and inconvenient, but most chicken eggs come from places that aren't always the safest and have a lot of other issues related to the environment. We think the world can do better." Bill Gates and Li Ka-Shing agree: They are two of a handful of billionaires investing in Hampton Creek.
Tetrick believes the egg problem is twofold. One, the amount of resources pooled to raise the chickens that lay the eggs is far greater than what's needed to grow plants; and two, the cramped quarters of caged chicken leads to food safety issues. "All of the land, water and fertilizer it takes to grow the feed and raise the chicken requires a lot of energy, and we think you don't need all that land to grow all that feed for a chicken — maybe it's better to feed the people instead," said Tetrick.
Manufacturing egg substitutes is not a particularly novel idea — there are already vegan Egg Beaters and Vegenaise available on the market — but making them cheaper than the real deal is. Hampton Creek has rolled out Just Mayo at Whole Foods (cookie dough is next in the lineup), and the company will launch its product with Safeway next month. It has also partnered with two Fortune 500 food manufacturers that will use Hampton Creek's ingredients in their products. Tetrick said he plans to work with retailers to ensure that Just Mayo and any future products will boast the lowest sticker price on shelves.
Tetrick understands that the average consumer has no interest in spending extra cash to buy a sustainable product. "The only way to change things is to make things affordable for everyone," said Tetrick. He used his own father as an example. "The goal is to make sure my dad goes to the grocery store to buy eggs for $1.49 and sees something we made for $0.49, and my dad chooses the one that's $0.49 not because he wants to save the world, but because it's affordable and a little healthier," he said.
"Healthier" doesn't mean "tastes healthier," either. That's the last thing Tetrick wants, and his refusal to compromise on taste means the labs at Hampton Creek have gone through a lot of plants. "As of last week, we've tested 3,100 varietals of plants," said Tetrick. "It sounds like a lot, but when you step back and put [it] in some perspective, the world got really addicted to soy and corn, but — and Bill Gates says this on his website — 92 percent of the world's plants haven't even been explored. There are hundreds of thousands out there we need to bring in."
Tetrick says this because Hampton Creek still hasn't perfected the egg substitute. Though his company has already found the right varietal of Canadian yellow pea that, when ground up, seamlessly emulsifies like an egg in mayonnaise, it's still looking for a plant that can produce a product that scrambles, tastes and looks just like an egg.
Surprisingly, Tetrick's team has found a plant extract that yields a scrambled texture, but Tetrick said it's not enough. "We've got a lot of work to do," he said. "It scrambles up and gels properly; it has good color and mouthfeel, but there's such subtlety and complexity in a real scrambled egg that we would never release it. We could release it to all of the vegans out there and they'd probably love it, but that's not what we're trying to do. We're trying to make it taste as good or better than anything out there."
If Hampton Creek can realize its dream of producing an egg alternative that tastes just as good and costs less than the real thing, it could make a serious impact around the world as a replacement for one of the cheapest, most widely used proteins. And if that happens, Tetrick may become the man who rendered the chicken-or-egg question obsolete.