Hampton Creek CEO says letter to presidential candidates seeks 'authentic leadership on food'

By Hank Schultz

- Last updated on GMT

Josh Tetrick: 'If I just wanted to maximize the amount of jars we sell I wouldn’t have written the letter...'
Josh Tetrick: 'If I just wanted to maximize the amount of jars we sell I wouldn’t have written the letter...'

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For Hampton Creek CEO Josh Tetrick, food lies at the heart of the debate about what path the country should take in the upcoming presidential election. That’s why he recently published an open letter to the presidential candidates in The New York Times.

Hampton Creek, whose signature product is a line of egg-free spreads branded as Just Mayo and which has added a second line called Just Cookie Dough, bills itself as the fastest growing food brand in the US. From a standing start on the shelves of Whole Foods in late 2013, the brand is now in more than 21,000 retail locations. The San Francisco-based company has inked an important deal with Walmart and has made a big splash in the realm of food service via a deal with Compass Group.

There have been bumps in the road, too. Late last year, Ali Partovi abruptly resigned after briefly holding the job of chief strategy officer. Partovi had been one of the early investors in the business. And in March of this year the company laid off nearly a fifth of its workforce, allegedly for performance reasons, according to The New York Times​.

Letter espouses core beliefs

So Tetrick knows a thing or two about branding and promotion, and perseverance. And while outside observers could be forgiven for thinking the open letter to candidates is another step along that path, Tetrick said it’s about the future of food, not of Hampton Creek.

“If I just wanted to maximize the amount of jars we sell I wouldn’t have written the letter,”​ Tetrick told FoodNavigator-USA.

“We didn’t start this company just to sell food products. This relates to the reason why we started this company in the first place. Why is it that food that is healthy is too damned expensive?”​ he said.

Tetrick said the goal in writing the letter was to spark a debate. He has a soapbox, it’s true, fashioned from his energetic personal style and the impressive results his nascent company has achieved and burnished in part by the David-vs-Goliath story of the legal challenges he has fended off from established food brands over the use of the term “mayo.” Tetrick said he wants to use that standing to help make the constitution of the food system in this country part of the election rhetoric.

“We think it is pretty crazy that no one is talking about food. Food threads its way into all of these issues concerning things like the economy, the role of government, immigration and race relations,”​ he said.

“From a policy perspective, we think a lot more needs to be done about food deserts, and not just in urban African American communities but in places like the Midwest. We’d like to see more support for crops outside of corn and soy, crops like like sorghum,” ​Tetrick said.

Tetrick said Hampton Creek has received feedback from several of the campaigns seeking more information prepatory to possibly setting up a meeting with staffers. But the letter is not just about reaching out to politicians, Tetrick said. It’s also meant to stimulate debate in the food industry itself.

“We think a lot more could be done to foster entrepreneurship around food, and that doesn’t just mean a new delivery service.  And the major food companies could be a lot more aggressive about figuring out ways to make better food. We just want to see some real, authentic leadership on food,”​ he said.

No single way forward

Tetrick said Hampton Creek is advocating a broad-based approach to the problem of making good food more affordable. Passionate advocates of one line of thinking or another can lose the forest for the trees, he said. He said he’s seeking results, and doesn’t care who he talks to get them.

“Some people say anti-GMOs is the way. Or supporting small farmers at the expense of big agribusiness is the way. I think you can have an American food system in which you are supporting small farmers selling their produce right through to people in their homes. There is a company called Good Eggs that does a great job of that,” ​he said.

“At the same time you can have a company like Hampton Creek making and distributing products on a national scale, and trying to make it a little bit healthier. The challenge then is to translate that to the biggest food companies and national policy,” ​Tetrick said.

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