Josh Tetrick: Hero or Hustler?

Josh Tetrick garnered outsized attention and favorable reviews for his start-up food company Hampton Creek Foods. Then a few detours on the road to healthier eating went up.

By Kevin T. Higgins, Managing Editor

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josh tetrick egg on face

Thumbing your nose at mainstream food companies is overtaking baseball as America’s favorite pastime, and this past summer, nobody had a bigger thumb than Josh Tetrick.

The 35-year-old founder and CEO of Hampton Creek presided over an unorthodox and – even by better-for-you food company standards – unprecedented ad campaign that lambasted “our outdated food system” and “a world of crappy food” in a series of full-page advertisements in the Sunday editions of the New York Times.

The white-on-black ads, which began June 21 and went into hiatus after the Aug. 9 edition, featured open letters with a salutation directed at different groups, including food industry leaders, presidential candidates, millennials and “Dear Mom.”

In the free-from and better-for-you world of food marketing, print advertising is done sparingly, if at all, and the Hampton series clocks in around $1 million. (It resumed Aug. 30 with a letter beginning, “Dear President Obama.”) Each ad was up front in the newspaper’s main section, just one or two right-hand pages behind Tiffany & Co.

BBC and Tetrick

Tetrick’s ads didn’t mention his products: at this point only Just Mayo, Just Cookies and Just Cookie Dough. All are vegan, each having found a substitute for eggs (in the case of Just Mayo, Canadian yellow pea protein).

Coincidentally, also in August, Tetrick received a warning letter from the FDA regarding Just Mayo and labeling issues, in particular its deviation from the standard of identity for mayonnaise. However that complaint plays out, the tone of the Times ads is nothing if not provocative – not in the same league as Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses nailed to the door of All Saints Church, but the closest thing to a manifesto for healthful packaged foods.

Big Food is taken to task, although it can be redeemed by helping remake agribusiness so that good food “would be 10X less expensive than crappy food.” The vehicle for change already exists. “We’ve built a movement,” the ads boast, a claim that might surprise free-from processors with a history that began before Hampton’s in 2011.

If good-for-you food companies were presidential candidates, Hampton Creek and Tetrick would be Donald Trump. No other individual or organization stirs as much controversy or garners as much attention in their respective fields.

Since his ersatz mayo began appearing on grocers’ shelves in 2013, Tetrick and his promotion of vegan-friendly dressing have been the focus of an outsized number of articles and reports that range from favorable to fawning. He may even have the ear of the Donald himself: According to Tetrick, after ads that began “Dear Presidential Candidates” appeared, he was contacted by four campaigns, including two calls from the candidates themselves (he declined to say which ones).

just mayo just defThe candidates ad, which ran July 26 and Aug. 2, laid the blame for diabetes, obesity, the destruction of family farms and strained race relations (in the form of food deserts) on “our outdated food system.” Tetrick invites them to join the Hampton movement and help in “fixing how we feed ourselves.” As with all but one letter, it closed with an invitation to drop him an email or call him directly. Readers who took him up on the offer often were surprised when Tetrick himself answered the phone. I was.

We talked about the candidate ads, the feedback he’d received from major retailers and fast-food chains “and thousands of consumers,” and his goal of healthier food that is better for the environment, tastes better and costs less. By the way, Tetrick says his products are in Dollar Tree stores.

The Times boasts of reaching more decision-makers than any other U.S. publication. But run-of-the-mill decision makers, even those who aspire to be the Decider in Chief, weren’t the ads’ target audience, some observers believe. They were lures for investors, and creating a new model for raising money, not creating new products, may be Tetrick’s greatest achievement. That, combined with masterful marketing and promotion, sets Hampton Creek apart.

Shake your money-maker

Hampton won’t mark its fourth anniversary until December, yet it already had booked $120 million in capital investment by the time it was three. The investors read like a who’s who of Silicon Valley: Bill Gates via Khosla Ventures; Eduardo Saverin, cofounder of Facebook; Jerry Yang/Yung, cofounder of Yahoo; and assorted billionaires and multi-billionaires. Whether they were turned on by the Elmer Gantry-like fervor of the promotions, the earth-friendly profile of the products, the hi-tech positioning of the company or all three, they chipped in more capital than other food start-ups with $30 million estimated sales can dream of.

For a self-described social entrepreneur with no previous experience in the food business, that’s not bad. After earning a degree in Africana studies from Cornell University and a law degree from University of Michigan, Tetrick spent seven years in Africa, where he worked as a Fulbright Scholar on a variety of social programs. As Tetrick explains, his movement “is not defined by food. It’s about the people—the people who believe that the right thing should be easier….It’s also about the outdated systems that just aren’t fit for the better world we’re trying to create.”

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