One of the most exciting entrepreneurial sagas of the past few years has been the quest to develop viable alternatives to meat. Journalist Chase Purdy recounts the story in his new book, Billion Dollar Burger: Inside Big Tech's Race for the Future of Food. Among the protagonists: Josh Tetrick, a vegan activist, enigmatic Silicon Valley player, and founder of JUST, which makes a mung bean-based egg substitute.
Purdy completed his book before the pandemic struck. The following is an edited excerpt.
Throughout the global pandemic, many of the companies developing futuristic meat--the kind that's grown from animal cells without an animal's ever needing to be slaughtered--have continued to work in their laboratories. They've been tinkering with cell lines and the nutrient-dense liquid serums used to feed those cells.
Their work is more important than ever.
The destabilizing impact of Covid-19 on the hyper-consolidated meat system showed the fragility of animal agriculture. Cell-cultured meat--better for public health, less polluting, and better for animal welfare--has become more and more appealing.
But even with those promises, companies in the space won't ascend without a fight. One entrepreneur, Josh Tetrick, the CEO of billion-dollar food startup JUST, knows this better than just about anyone.
In the most Silicon Valley of stories, JUST was first headquartered in the garage of an unassuming little house at 371 Tenth Street in San Francisco--a short drive from the company's current headquarters. It was a shoestring operation back then, a tiny food tech firm with an outsize goal, stuffed into a small nook in the city's SoMa district.
One day in 2014, a letter arrived. The garage was busy when it was delivered. It was from Unilever, one of the biggest food companies in the world.
The letter was polite, but clear. Unilever had noticed one of JUST's products, a vegan mayonnaise called Just Mayo. The food giant claimed that the name "Just Mayo" violated truth in advertising laws and standards of identity because the vegan product didn't include eggs. Its solution? JUST should change the name of its product. The "or else" was implied.
The words ricocheted from staffer to staffer, stopping them cold and plunging the room into a confused silence. A shaky panic started to ripple through the garage, a reaction that was, in Tetrick's view, totally understandable, he says. Many of them had never worked in an environment where they'd experienced a letter of that type.
"They imagined the biggest, baddest bogeyman in the world," Tetrick said of his employees. The company panicked. "'Holy fuck, they are going to shut us down. We can't sell it like this, no way. We must change it.'"
The problem with making eggless products that are meant to mimic and replace foods that typically contain eggs is that you run the risk of pissing off the people who make the products you're seeking to replace. And in the history of food innovation, established brands have rarely taken kindly to new entrants into their territories. That much was apparent in this situation, and Tetrick's small team felt the pressure.
So Tetrick was confronted with a difficult choice.
He decided to hold firm, responding to Unilever with a letter of his own that listed the reasons he felt his product did not need a name change. It was balanced on a razor-thin premise. He acknowledged that the government had a specific meaning for the term "mayonnaise," and that its definition included eggs as a fundamental ingredient. But JUST was selling "mayo," Tetrick said, a term that was not defined by the government.
Unmoved, Unilever began to ramp up ever more aggressive language. The behemoth dashed off another letter addressed to Tetrick's garage, this time threatening a lawsuit, which it filed on Halloween in 2014.
Tetrick found himself at a crossroads--perhaps the most important he'd ever stare down. If he had given in, everything might have turned out differently. JUST might not even still be a company.
He turned to several people for advice, including some who told him that he should acknowledge that JUST was an insignificant plant-based food company compared with Unilever, and stood little chance of successfully fighting back against it. His products, at that point, were not widely available; in fact, they were more likely to be found sitting on the shelves of obscure specialty food stores than in major, big-box retailers.
Second, rather than tussle with an established food brand and bear the cost of a lawsuit, he should just cut his losses and call his product exactly what it was: a vegan dressing.
But Tetrick was allergic to the idea. Even as he mulled it, he says he couldn't stop thinking back to his early childhood in Alabama. It became the basis for his argument that vegan mayo, as it were, had just as much right to sit on store shelves as real mayonnaise.
"This is where Alabama comes into it, right away!" he said. "No one wants to buy vegan mayonnaise in Alabama. Not a single soul."
From Billion Dollar Burger: Inside Big Tech's Race for the Future of Food by Chase Purdy, with permission from Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright 2020 by Chase Purdy