With this week's announcement that Tyson Foods has taken a relatively small (5%) stake in the plant-based protein start-up (whose board I chair), there will inevitably be cries of concern from passionate vegans and animal rights activists who will ask if our mission-driven plant-based protein company has lost its soul by associating with the nation's largest purveyor of animal-based protein. Beyond Meat
It's a fair question to ask. But it's unfair to assume that the answer can only be yes. I should know. In 2008, The Coca-Cola Company bought 40% of Honest Tea, the enterprise I co-founded with my business school professor ten years earlier.
When Coke's investment was first announced, we heard from dozens of longstanding consumers as well as some of our best customers who told us they were going to stop buying Honest Tea because they didn't want to feel like they were supporting Coca-Cola.
Of course, there are important differences between the Tyson-Beyond Meat investment, and Coca-Cola's investment in Honest Tea. First of all, Coke's investment came with a path to ownership--they bought the rights to buy Honest Tea three years after their first investment. Tyson's purchase of 5 percent of Beyond Meat is just an equity stake--they did not acquire future options to buy the company. In the Honest Tea transaction, two representatives from Coke joined the Honest Tea board, and had certain veto powers (we couldn't buy a company, etc.). A Tyson representative will observe Beyond Meat's board meetings, but will not vote.
One of our goals with Coca-Cola's investment in Honest Tea was to help democratize organics--to make less sweet, organic, sustainably grown drinks more widely available. Before the Coke transaction, Honest Tea was mostly selling organic drinks to healthy people--we were in 15,000 accounts, mostly natural food stores, mostly on the coasts. Now we are in over 125,000 accounts, including several national restaurant chains, such as Wendy's and Chick-fil-A.
It is our hope that Tyson and Beyond Meat will find ways to work together to make plant-based protein more available. As one of the world's largest protein companies, Tyson has powerful potential to expand the availability of plant-based protein. If we can get every American family to have one more plant-based meal per week, we believe Beyond Meat can have a dramatic impact on health and the environment, not to mention animal welfare.
So what were the doubters concerned about? An Inc. article written at the time of the Honest Tea transaction in 2008 worried that there would be efforts by Coke to substitute cheaper ingredients or move away from organic ingredients.
In fact, the opposite has happened. Not only does everything Honest Tea sell continue to be certified organic, but we took the unprecedented step this year of transitioning all of the sugar we purchase to Fair Trade certification--a step that increases our annual cost of goods by hundreds of thousands of dollars. It's also worth noting that this fall Honest Tea launched herbal teas in the United Kingdom, so the Coke partnership is helping to spread the Honest ethos around the world.
As unappetizing as these kind of corporate partnerships might initially seem to the passionate believer, the long-term goal--whether it is democratizing organic beverages or spreading plant-based protein--has the potential to make change happen more quickly and more powerfully.
Of course, there are risks, and we need to be aware of them. But if he were afraid of risk, Beyond Meat's founder Ethan Brown would not have left a promising job in the fuel cell industry to sell chicken-free chicken strips out of an abandoned hospital kitchen in Cumberland, Maryland eight years ago. As Franklin D. Roosevelt once said, "Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the assessment that something else is more important than fear."