You learn a fair bit about someone by just asking how they take their eggs. And it’s a pretty hot question to fire up AFN’s new “Table Talk” series when across the table this time is a veteran food industry egg-spert like David Wagstaff. Quick clue: Wagstaff’s egg preference has nothing to do with chickens, ducks, quails, ostriches, sturgeon, tofu, crocodiles or dinosaurs. He likes them “in a Just Egg wrap,” he says, proudly touting a plant-based protein product made by Just Inc, a San Francisco company and an early trailblazer in the foodtech space for its vegan egg replacement products, if indeed a controversial one. (Those controversies largely came from its fledgling days, when the company was known as Hampton Creek, a name that was worth changing regardless of the various scandals now associated with it, since it always sounded a bit like a summer cottage belonging to the Addams family.)
Wagstaff’s shout out for Just Egg is of course not made dispassionately; he has just joined Just as its executive director for Europe. “Our aim is to launch in the UK and across Europe in Q1 2020,” he reveals to AFN over macchiatos at London’s Conduit Club, outlining plans that include a distributor in Germany— PHW Group — and a manufacturer in Italy, Eurovo. A launch in Europe “does not mean opening the floodgates,” he says, describing a careful choice of three core markets and building out from there. “We’re not going to have marketing for up to 28 European languages by day one,” he says, but he does claim demand is ratcheting up as the news of an impending Europe launch begins to percolate. “This morning, I’ve just got off the phone with Switzerland’s largest supermarket,” claims Wagstaff. “Burger King Europe is also interested!”
A Clever Mungic Trick
Focus turns back to eggs. He really does struggle, he says, in the spirit of our post-truth age, to perceive the difference between Just Eggs and chicken-laid eggs. It truly does “scramble and taste just like the real thing,” he says, leaning over and streaming promotional video clips on his laptop, mostly of randomly chosen New Yorkers gasping in amazement at being told how the delicious, eggy food they’ve just been eating was in fact — yes, you’ve guessed the twist — never hatched from a chicken.
Behind the magic trick is a formula dominated by processed mung beans, which have been grown and consumed for centuries for other food purposes, mostly in China and India. There are now also some plantations in East African countries like Tanzania, as well as trials for its cultivation in North America. Their formula offers, the company claims, a good nutritional profile of high protein and low cholesterol. Compared to chicken-laid eggs, they say, it has a lower carbon footprint, using less water and land, with zero risk of animal welfare infringements like confined caging, or the excessive use of antibiotics and growth hormones.
Not so long ago, Wagstaff’s egg preference might have been a little different; he is a former COO of the Happy Egg Co in the USA, where he was tasked with setting up and operating supply chains of organically farmed eggs in the US market, and found surprising apprehension in the form of food safety regulators reluctant to embrace animal welfare. “We had to fly representatives from the FDA over to the UK to ‘prove’ to them that farming chickens outside is safe,” he recalls, still in a tone of slight disbelief.
Part of his quest to create supply chains that saw to better living conditions for chickens saw Wagstaff join the Humane Society of the United States. Here, he met Hampton Creek co-founder Josh Balk, and his gravitation toward a brave new world of mung beans began; by this July, he was recruited to lead Just’s expansion across the continent from London, where he will be navigating regulatory approval, locking down manufacturing and distribution channels, and marketing the brand.
Oh, Cell Grown Nugget, Where Art Thou?
Talk was sparing, however, of Just’s many other products that have been at various stages of production and development for years. Many of these symbolised some of the company’s past tendencies toward over-promising and under-delivering, like the underwhelming launch of egg-free cookie dough products, or bold claims of the imminent arrival of its cellular-grown chicken nuggets, which now show little sign of coming to market, despite assurances they will be with us by the end of this year. As widely reported, Just certainly had a chequered history in its Hampton Creek days, earning the caustic label in 2017 from Vanity Fair as “America’s favorite scandal-plagued vegan mayo business.” Since 2011, CEO Josh Tetrick has been a charismatic but mercurial and error-prone evangelist for unscrambling the world’s food systems, with the company accused of buying its own product to boost sales, a trail of costly legal disputes with giant incumbents like Unilever, who sued over the use of the term ‘Mayonnaise,’ and the firing of three senior executives. The supermarket chain Target also severed ties with the brand over allegations of food safety concerns. Perhaps still more dramatically, was a high profile boardroom walkout by the likes of Google DeepMind co-founder Mustafa Suleyman and Hong Kong VC Horizons Ventures.
Wagstaff would rather not dwell on this, as this was all before his time, but he points out the level of force raged against Hampton Creek in the early years from incumbents, and the general tough grind of startup life if you’re ahead of your time, as he believes Hampton Creek were.
“The business has found its natural place,” he says, citing the hiring spree of food industry veterans to smooth the passage to the consumer, and to layer up logistics that can get their food tech to market. “Often, if you’re any good, you’re a couple of years ahead of your time, aren’t you? So for the first few years, it’s bloody difficult, and everybody hates you. Nobody wants to deal with you. And then, very quickly, that shifts. We’ve gone through the hard yards.”
The company, in the years since, has reconstituted the board with members experienced in food production, international business, agriculture and sustainability. They now include longtime DuPont executive Jim Borel; HRH Prince Khaled bin Alwaleed bin Talal, founder of KBW Ventures; environmentalist advertising industry veteran Larry Kopald; former R.J. Reynolds and Nabisco food safety expert Cliff Coles; and oceanographer Sylvia Earle. As for the lawsuit with Unilever, the hatchet was ultimately buried with Unilever dropping the case and getting to work on a plant-based mayo of its own. To counter the accusation of buying its own product to boost sales, says Just’s Head of Global Communications Andrew Noyes, the company “commissioned an extensive audit by a Big Four accounting firm, which found Bloomberg’s reporting was inaccurate.”
The Ogre Of the Egg Industry No Longer
“The irony now,” points out Wagstaff, “is that our manufacturers are now the manufacturers who were rallied to fight against us. But now with the plant-based movement, they actually see it as an opportunity to grow a margin, play in a different space, have different customers, different consumers … It’s completely flipped on its head in five years or less, it’s gone from being the ogre of the egg industry, to something that’s adding consumer interest and margin to the chain.”
With Europe, he says, they will take heed of bringing in manufacturing partners, seeking to collaborate with incumbents in search of win-wins, and he reckons none of this is going to put chicken egg production out of business. “It’s not a direct egg competitor,” he says, though noting its advantages on the food storage and food waste front.
Running beside Wagstaff in Europe, the company is making strides in China, and looking into negotiating its sourcing contracts. Promising signs of concrete moves paying off emerged this week back in the US for Just, as the company declared that it has sold the plant-based equivalent of 10 million chicken eggs, saving what it estimates to be 361 million gallons of water; 1.46 million kg of CO2; and 2.5 million square meters based on an ounce per ounce comparison of our product vs. shelled eggs. This number is a small slice of the scale of the US industry, which for example, produces about 75 billion eggs a year, around 10% of the world supply, according to the American Eggs Board.
The company also proudly took stock this month of bringing its plant-based Just Egg to 2,100 Kroger-owned stores around the US over the next few weeks and months. Shoppers will soon be able to find Just Egg in the egg aisle as Kroger, Ralphs, Fred Meyer, QFC, Fry’s and others. It is already available at Kroger-owned Harris Teeter and Roundy’s banners, including Mariano’s, Pick ‘n Save and Metro Market.
Just Egg’s debut at Kroger comes ahead of Better Breakfast Month, observed annually in September as a growing number of people seek out plant-based products and healthier, protein-rich, low-sugar breakfast options. Citing consumer studies, the team at Just say 77% of those choosing Just Egg are meat-eaters; 21% do not eat animal products; and 57% plan to eat more plant-based proteins in the next year.
“We believe a just food system starts with breakfast and our partnership with the Kroger family of stores, the largest grocery store chain in the United States, makes Just Egg accessible to countless consumers in communities around the country,” said Josh Tetrick, co-founder and CEO of Just. “This milestone is a major step toward building a smarter, healthier and more sustainable way of eating.”
Not Scrambling for Competitors
Past scandals and recent breakthroughs aside, few doubt they will have their competitors in this scramble, like those from Follow Your Heart, another early mover in the space who initially offered algal egg substitutes before switching to something soy based. Spero, a San Francisco based startup makes liquid eggs as well, but does so mostly from pumpkin seed protein. There’s also a chance that plant based protein powerhouses Beyond Meat and Impossible, both astoundingly well endowed with cash, might move past their burger and chicken meat focus, and into omelettes and souffles.
One thing Wagstaff sees little threat from now is the larger players. “They’re trying to shortcut their way to innovation,” he says. But their internal processes “are so slow, so bureaucratic.”
For his upcoming talk at the Future Food-Tech conference in London this October, where AFN is a media partner, Wagstaff said he was still formulating a message that would highlight the need for all companies, big and small, to wake up and adapt to the “shifting sands of consumer sentiment,” as the plant-based revolution gets underway.