The Vegan Mayo that Dare Not Speak its Name

Image: AP Photo/Jeff Chiu

Unlike a small appliance that squeezes juice out from a pouch or a vending machine that sells stuff (looking at you, Juicero and Bodega), vegan mayonnaise actually has a distinct value proposition, a quality that sets it apart from its yolk-rich, emulsified step-cousin. It’s odd, then, that a key moment in vegan-mayo startup Hampton Creek’s trajectory was to stop using “vegan” in describing their products. At The Atlantic, Bianca Bosker charts co-founder and CEO Josh Tetrick’s transition from outspoken animal-rights rabble-rouser to a Silicon Valley executive fluent in the complementary discourses of wellness, environmental consciousness, and instant gratification.

Though he said he still believes “every single word” of his past entreaties, Tetrick has largely sanitized his public remarks of references to animal abuse since finding that they fell flat with the broad group of retailers and shoppers he hopes to attract. He now hews closer to lines such as “We’ve made it really easy for good people to do the wrong things.” Though Tetrick has been a vegan for the past seven years, he discourages his marketing team from using the word vegan to describe Just products. The term, he says, evokes arrogance and wealth and suggests food that “tastes like crap.” Instead he promises customers a bright future where they can eat better, be healthy, and save the environment without spending more, sacrificing pleasure, or inconveniencing themselves. “A cookie can change the world,” Hampton Creek has asserted in its marketing materials.

The message is a rallying cry for a particular kind of revolution. Tetrick launched Hampton Creek in an era when investors were reaching beyond traditional tech companies, and businesses that might otherwise have been merely, say, specialty-food purveyors could leverage software—and grand mission statements tapping into Silicon Valley’s do-gooder ethos—to cast themselves as paradigm-breaking forces. Venture capitalists have poured money into start-ups aiming to disrupt everything from lingerie to luggage to lipstick, with less emphasis on the product than on the scope of the ambition and the promise of tech-enabled efficiencies. Hampton Creek offered idealism that could scale.

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