Silicon Valley tech leaders assess the future of food at FERN event

Whether it’s paleo meal kits or pea-based condiments, some of the country’s leading food-tech entrepreneurs and investors shared their thoughts on the future of sustainable food at FERN Talk & Eats in Silicon Valley.

Josh Tetrick, CEO of Hampton Creek, the now $120-million startup that made its name on vegan mayonnaise, told the audience that his goal is to reach outside the small circle of Americans who follow food issues. “Are people buying stuff because they care? Yes. But I think most people in this world either don’t care, are too busy to care or don’t have enough money to care,” he told the audience.

Tetrick said Hampton Creek has focused on creating plant-based products that can slip into everyday food, be served in public schools and available at retailers like Walmart. “We want to use less carbon, and create products that are better for animals. But we don’t necessarily need the mom who buys it to know it. We just need it to be affordable and tastes good,” said Tetrick.

Anya Fernald, founder of the grass-fed beef company Belcampo, said that her customers tend to be young families, determined to offer their children healthy fare: “My audience isn’t the 1 percent. The 1 percent wants the super fatty Wagyu.” Concerns over health, she said, are the company’s biggest driver. “We have cardiologists sending their patients to us.”

Adam Zbar, who launched Sun Basket, an $80-million meal-kit company, said his customers can request meals that follow specialized diets, including paleo, vegetarian and gluten-free, which arrive at their door pre-portioned and ready to cook. More than 90 percent of Sun Basket’s clientele lives outside the San Francisco Bay area, in areas, Zbar said, where access to well-sourced, nourishing ingredients is more difficult. He emphasized that it’s important for startups to get beyond the Bay Area if they’re really going to prove the worth of their ideas.

The meal-kits model has come under fire for its carbon footprint, both from packaging materials and the dependence on shipping. But Zbar said Sun Basket is the first company in the field to offer 100 percent recyclable and compostable packaging materials. He argued that delivering meal kits is no worse, and potentially better, than having thousands of people driving themselves to the grocery store.

Hampton Creek, too, has endured its share of negative press lately, after it was revealed that the company hired undercover contractors to buy bottles of its Just Mayo off grocery store shelves. Altogether the employees purchased more than $1.4 million worth of Just Mayo, according to an investigation by Bloomberg. The company is now under review by the Securities and Exchange Commission for misleading investors as to the products success.

Asked by FERN editor-in-chief, Sam Fromartz, whether he has any regrets about the buybacks, Tetrick said he would do it again. Other entrepreneurs have also bought their own product to stir demand and check product quality on shelves, Tetrick said, citing Sara Blakely, the founder of the pantyhose line Spanx, as an example.

“It’s easy to take a couple things and create something else from it,” Tetrick said, suggesting that the media had gotten the story wrong. “We’ve been surprised by all the attention the [Bloomberg] article got.”

From the investors’ perspective, Stephen DeBerry, CFO of Bronze Investments, urged venture capitalists to focus on underserved neighborhoods when it comes to food businesses. Bronze Investments is largely involved in food projects in east Palo Alto, California, an area that has seen almost none of the investment riches of the rest of Silicon Valley.

“The story of east Palo Alto is the story of east Oakland, east Baltimore, and east Philly,” DeBerry said. “It’s systemic and it’s intentional. When you start talking about divides — whether it’s a freeway, river or the other side of the tracks — the division between these communities is intentional. They’re bad design decisions. But the good news is they’re designed decisions, so they can be redesigned.”

Part of that redesign, said, Kat Taylor, co-founder of the TomKat Ranch Educational Foundation and the mission-driven investment firm Radicle Impact, comes down to trying to “put more and more different people in charge everywhere. We want to empower the crowd.”