Dressing down

Why a fancy food startup is selling vegan mayo to America’s poorest shoppers

July 11, 2014
July 11, 2014

The clean-food movement has ambitions to eventually feed the next billion people on earth. Silicon Valley venture capitalists are backing food-hacking startups (paywall) trying to invent cheaper or healthier alternatives to traditional protein, fat, and carbohydrates. But for now, the most innovative edibles are expensive and unfamiliar niche products—Soylent, anyone?

Just Mayo, an eggless mayonnaise made by two-year-old Hampton Creek, is a notable exception. Within six months of the product’s debut last autumn, jars were being stocked in Costco, Safeway, and Kroger supermarkets across the US. Last month, it hit shelves of ParknShop stores in Hong Kong. And starting this week, it’s being sold in Dollar Tree stores—the discount supermarkets that are at the very cheapest end of American retail.

Vegans and people on low-cholesterol diets have been buying various brands of plant-oil-based mayo for years. But Just Mayo’s ambition is far bigger: to replace conventional eggs altogether as the default ingredient in homemade potato salads and restaurant dressings.

“This isn’t just going to happen in San Francisco, in a world of vegans. This is going to happen in Birmingham, Alabama. This is going to happen in Missouri, in Philadelphia,” Hampton Creek CEO Josh Tetrick told Mother Jones last December. He’s not interested in catering only to an eco-conscious crowd. Plant-based egg alternatives don’t just mean less animal cruelty; they’re also believed to be healthier, cheaper, and more efficient to produce than eggs from chickens, with longer shelf lives and fewer disease risks.

Just Mayo’s main ingredients are the same as those for most mayonnaises on the market: canola oil, water, and lemon juice. But the key emulsifier, instead of egg yolk, is yellow pea protein. Many reviewers haven’t been able to tell the difference between Just Mayo and other mayonnaises, or at least prefer it over Hellman’s.

Hampton Creek also has a product called Beyond Eggs, for baking use, and Just Cookies, cookie dough that can be eaten raw or baked. Up next: Just Scrambles, which is expected to challenge ConAgra’s line of Egg Beaters (liquid egg white mixtures that are popular among Americans who avoid egg yolks for health reasons). But to take on the multi-billion-dollar egg industry, Hampton Creek needs its products to be leagues better than any egg substitutes that have come before.

To that end, Tetrick has hired a team of chefs, food scientists, and engineers to “hack” the egg by studying thousands of plant species and experimenting with almost as many combinations of the few that seem most promising. Dan Zigmond, a former data scientist at Google, just joined Hampton Creek to build what the company says will be the world’s largest plant database.

“We look at the chicken egg as almost a set of code,” Tetrick said, in an interview with New York magazine earlier this year. “The chicken egg has 22 different functions. It aerates, gels, binds, emulsifies—that is the software. So we have to identify and utilize new lines of code. We don’t want to use the chicken-egg code; we want to do something more sustainable.”

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