How to have nearly 50 years of success in plant-based food: Follow Your Heart(Part one)
2020-01-14 10:44 Tuesday
By Megan Poinski
With unflinching ethics and deep commitment to sustainability, the company that practically started the trend grew from a vegetarian lunch counter to a grocery store CPG staple.
Bob Goldberg didn't get into the vegan food movement to make money.
In 1970, he joined other young and passionate vegans in Los Angeles to run a lunch counter in the back of a natural foods store. He eventually became a part owner of the store and its cafe - appropriately named Follow Your Heart - and plunged into making vegan food.
"We really didn't think like that," Goldberg told Food Dive. "What we did think is that we very much believed in what we were doing. That it was the right thing to do, that it's the right thing for the planet, the right thing for animals. And it just didn't make sense to us to do anything differently than that. So that was what was motivating us at the time. Not a dream of getting wildly wealthy or any of that kind of thing. It was just right. This was much, much simpler than that."
Goldberg paused for a minute.
"It still is, pretty much," he said with a laugh.
In almost a half century, Goldberg and his company have found success - and essentially started the plant-based food movement. Follow Your Heart officials wouldn't disclose exact sales figures, though Martin Kruger, the company's chief operating office, told Food Dive revenues have grown fivefold in the last nine years, with a growth rate that is "pretty high."
Follow Your Heart entered the CPG space in the late '80s as a contract manufacturer for Trader Joe's. In 1995, it started producing its own products, starting with its signature egg-free mayonnaise and the product for which the company is best known, Vegenaise.
With 12 varieties of Vegenaise, plus dairy-free yogurts, salad dressings and cheeses, gluten-free bread and tortillas, and an egg replacement that can be scrambled. Follow Your Heart is synonymous with the plant-based category. What started as a quirky food enterprise was more than a generation ahead of the curve. Today, the once desolate marketplace that Follow Your Heart competes in is crowded with competitors producing vegan condiments, cheeses and eggs.
"We very much believed in what we were doing. That it was the right thing to do, that it's the right thing for the planet, the right thing for animals. And it just didn't make sense to us to do anything differently than that. So that was what was motivating us at the time. Not not a dream of getting wildly wealthy or any of that kind of thing. It was just right."
Founder, Follow Your Heart
Nearly a half century later, those same beliefs about the food system the company was founded upon stand strong. The Follow Your Heart store and cafe is still operating in Los Angeles, a prominent landmark for the plant-based movement. Not only is Follow Your Heart one of the patriarchs of the plant-based movement, but it's also its spiritual core. And the company's devotion to its beliefs and dedication to following what it believes is right has been a role model for more ethically minded and sustainability focused plant-based companies in the present and future.
Michele Simon, executive director with the Plant Based Foods Association, told Food Dive that aside from really being the genesis of the plant-based food movement, Follow Your Heart's concern for the earth, employees and consumers shows "a holistic approach to being an ethical company."
Kruger, who has been at Follow Your Heart for a decade, said it's been incredible to see consumers shift toward plant-based options — and for Follow Your Heart to watch dozens of other companies enter the plant-based alternatives space.
According to SPINS data compiled by the Good Food Institute, the plant-based food market was worth $4.5 billion in the year ended in April — an increase of 31% from the same point in 2017. Some of the fastest growth has come in categories where Follow Your Heart is among the market leaders: plant-based cheese, which grew 68.8% in those two years; plant-based yogurt, up 129.3% in that time frame; and plant-based condiments, dressings and mayo, an increase of 29.1%.
"I laugh because ... Bob talks about, you know, being at the right place at the right time, as we are as a company right now," Kruger said. "I always joke back and I say, 'When you've been in business for 50 years, you're bound to be at the right time at some portion of the span of 50 years.' "
Bob Goldberg, left, with Follow Your Heart co-founder Paul Lewin in front of the store in the 1980s. | Credit: Follow Your Heart
A rich history
In the early days of Follow Your Heart, all Goldberg wanted was for the natural foods store and cafe to be a viable business. He wasn't thinking about formulating vegan and vegetarian forms of pantry staples, becoming a food manufacturer or creating new products.
The store and cafe - which actually had to move to a new location in 1976 because it needed more space - has continued to thrive. It's still there today, with employees who have worked with Follow Your Heart for generations.
Goldberg said he first worked on making an egg-free mayonnaise for the cafe in the store out of necessity. In the 1970s, no CPG brands made this kind of product. The item was a hit among customers, so they decided to try to make some for distribution at other Southern California stores in 1977.
"We knew how to run a restaurant and we knew how to run a natural food store, but we didn't have the first idea about manufacturing a food product that was going to go into wide distribution," Goldberg said. "We didn't have ... the food science background. We just didn't really know what we were doing. So when we launched that product, it ended up being an epic failure."
How epic? The oils separated and expanded, with mayonnaise ingredients oozing out of the jars. Goldberg said they had to buy every jar back. And they stayed away from CPG manufacturing for several years.
The company did find manufacturing co-packers to work with. They made Vegenaise for use in the store, and the co-packers worked with Follow Your Heart on its second foray into manufacturing. Follow Your Heart produced some private-label vegetarian products for Trader Joe's starting in the 1990s, but Goldberg said they never made mayonnaise for the retailer.
The relationship with Trader Joe's abruptly ended in 2010 amid a dispute about a product recall. And Follow Your Heart started concentrating on creating its own branded products for wider distribution.
"We knew how to run a restaurant and we knew how to run a natural food store, but we didn't have the first idea about manufacturing a food product that was going to go into wide distribution. ... So when we [first] launched that product [in the late '70s], it ended up being an epic failure."
Founder, Follow Your Heart
Goldberg said Vegenaise, the company's signature product, was the first. In terms of ingredients, the original Vegenaise has never changed much. But through the years, different varieties were added, including soy-free, low fat and flavored products.
Dasha Shor, a global food analyst at Mintel, told Food Dive in an email that Follow Your Heart's innovation and entry into new product lines is a big part of its success.
Follow Your Heart expanded into cheese with dairy- and soy-free shreds in 2013. Today, Kruger said, the company's shredded and sliced cheeses are among its best sellers.
VeganEgg, which was first made from algal flour and protein, debuted in 2015. Kruger said Follow Your Heart was the first company to make a vegan egg replacement that scrambled like the real thing and could be used as a substitute in other applications.
Credit: Follow Your Heart