How it started
Josh Tetrick, who once dreamed of playing professional football, found himself by age 30 sleeping on a couch of an ex-grilfriend’s home in California searching for something meaningful to do with his life. Though he’d been to law school and spent time working on environmental advocacy in Africa, “I felt really frustrated and unsure about what I wanted to do next,” the former West Virginia linebacker recalled. “I just knew that I wanted to do something meaningful and I’d come around to the idea that I wanted to use capitalism in a positive way.”
He found the idea he sought through the influence of his best friend, Josh Balk. Tetrick and Balk were high school football teammates in suburban Philadelphia, and Balk had long been onto the notion of mindful eating, getting Tetrick to pay attention to the environmental and humanitarian costs of how food gets onto the plate. Balk felt that the egg industry was especially troublesome in terms of land use, water use and carbon emissions, not to mention the welfare of hens, Tetrick said. Around 1.4 trillion chicken eggs are consumed every year, using 93 million acres of land and 51 billion gallons of water, according to Eat Just.
“Eventually,” Tetrick said, “[Balk] pushed hard enough where he said, ‘What if there was a company behind making animal protein better? And what if we started with an egg?’” Balk, who works as VP of farm animal protection at the Humane Society of the U.S., is listed as a co-founder of Eat Just.
Their idea was anything but an overnight success. Tetrick described Googling the number of plants in the world and finding 400,000—but no information as to which might replicate an egg. But Tetrick was able to convince early investors to back his idea, which got him off his girlfriend’s couch, and he began the process that led to the introduction of Just Egg years later.
Meantime, the company, then known as Hampton Creek, launched a pea-based vegan mayonnaise alternative called Just Mayo that was in for its own adventures. Shortly after its rollout, the brand was sued by Unilever, parent of Hellmann’s, for using the word “Mayo” for a product that didn’t use eggs (the case was eventually dropped after discussion between the parties; Hampton Creek later revised its label claims after discussion with the FDA).
In 2016, Just Mayo was found to have been targeted by the American Egg Board, an industry-funded trade group overseen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s marketing branch. The Egg Board was said to have spent nearly $60,000 to undermine Just Mayo, by using influencers to promote pro-egg messages and manipulating search results for the product. Emails uncovered in an investigation showed some Egg Board members joking that they would “put a hit on” Tetrick.
Hampton Creek also encountered troubles of its own. A Bloomberg investigation in 2016 found that the company had instructed employees to secretly buy its products and to inquire stores about their availability, in order to boost sales figures. Tetrick maintained this was a method of quality control; a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation into the matter was dropped. And in 2017, the company was rocked by the departure of three top employees in what was described as a coup attempt, followed shortly by a mass board resignation.
While not addressing the internal issues directly, Tetrick said the disruptive nature of the company’s products led him to anticipate friction.
“A company that is pushing back is waking up in the morning thinking how it can make more money that day. And if they’re going to make more money that day by selling kale, then they're going to sell more kale. If they’re going to make more money that day by slaughtering an animal, then they're probably going to slaughter more animals,” Tetrick said. “So there’s going to be pushback, that’s part of the deal, and the best way to deal with all that is to put our heads down and make things taste good, make people feel good about it, and make it more accessible to all consumers. They don’t care about all that noise. So there needs to be a fixation on what actual human beings want. I don’t think that’s terribly complicated.”