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.' "
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 is 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.
Making today's trends
While Follow Your Heart has always seen some success, it's never been quite like it is today. But jumping on a bandwagon is not Goldberg's reason for doing business.
"Follow Your Heart is not, has never been, about the latest trends in food," he said. "It's more about wholesome comfort food that people can come back to again and again. It's not outrageously expensive and it's not pretentious."
While many consumers of that "wholesome comfort food" have traditionally been vegetarians, Kruger said it seems like there has been a major shift in the last five years. More people are aware of the health and sustainability benefits of a plant-based diet, as well as the welfare issues linked to traditional animal-based products.
At the same time, Kruger said the space has been filled with food scientists working to unlock new ways to make plant-based products.
"I think the mindset right now is, if it didn't exist six months ago, ask again," Kruger said. "...There is an internal mindset that we're never done."
Some of these ingredients are noteworthy in and of themselves, noted Shor. Follow Your Heart was a leader in using pea protein in its soy-free Vegenaise. It also is a pioneer in the algal flour found in its VeganEgg. The company even created vegan honey out of brown rice syrup, chicory syrup, maple syrup and natural flavors for its Vegan Honey Mustard Salad Dressing.
"When we see other companies bring out outstanding products, our approach is, 'That's fantastic.' They're doing two things. Number one, they're providing additional choices for consumers, which is always important. ... And I think the second benefit is it pushes the rest of us to do better."
Chief operating officer, Follow Your Heart
This constant innovation has helped Follow Your Heart not only stay relevant but become a market leader in plant-based food.
The plant-based space is burgeoning, Kruger said, but it's still pretty small. Follow Your Heart was one of the first members of the PBFA, which currently has 166 members. Simon with the PBFA said as the group was forming, leadership at Follow Your Heart was supportive of both the organization and her personally.
But, she said, it's definitely not a staid company doing the same things it's always done.
"They haven't just rested on their laurels," Simon said. "I didn't even realize all the wide variety of cheese alternatives they have. And every show [it seems] they're coming out with something like a new yogurt line. ... So I think that's important, too. For any company to survive these days, you have to continue to innovate."
In the small plant-based food community, Kruger said it's easy to keep tabs on what others are doing. Plant-based cheese represents a tiny fraction of the entire cheese market. So instead of fighting over those few purchases, Kruger said Follow Your Heart focuses on the larger picture — the percentage of consumers who aren't buying plant-based at all.
"When we see other companies bring out outstanding products, our approach is, 'That's fantastic,' " Kruger said. "They're doing two things. Number one, they're providing additional choices for consumers, which is always important. ... And I think the second benefit is it pushes the rest of us to do better."
Follow Your Heart has room to grow, Shor wrote. In the last three years, just 7% of mayonnaise, 8% of dressings and vinegar and 2.5% of cheese products had “vegan/no animal ingredients” claims. Follow Your Heart just needs to keep working to maintain its status.
"The challenge is achieving the taste that consumers desire, while also appealing to those who want to avoid over-processed foods with long ingredient lists," Shor wrote. "If the company can combine health and taste, it can succeed in this market."
There is ample reason for them to make these changes. Shor wrote that 52% of U.S. consumers say taste is the most important factor in plant-based food, while 71% say it's the most important attribute when purchasing condiments.
What's in a name?
Many companies that make food without animals call their products "plant-based." And even though their products may be made without any animal inputs at all, it's risky to call a product "vegan."
Research has shown consumers find products labeled "vegan" to be less appealing. In 2018, food R&D lab and research agency Mattson gave consumers statements and asked them to choose whether they applied to "100% plant-based" or "vegan" food. Most people had more positive associations with "100% plant-based." According to Food Navigator, 83% said that food — rather than vegan — was the future. Almost three-quarters said 100% plant-based food tastes better than vegan, and more than two-thirds said 100% plant-based food was healthier.
The notable exception to food companies moving firmly toward a "plant-based" label to find market success is Vegenaise. And even though the beginning of that product name is pronounced like "vegetable," Follow Your Heart representatives said most people pronounce it "vegan-aise."
Goldberg said the term "vegan" was relatively unknown when they named the product back in the 1970s. However, the company uses the terms "vegan" and "plant-based" interchangeably. He doesn't think it impacts sales.
"It's a tipping point, but it's like the tip of an iceberg. I think this is a mega trend, a global mega trend, and I think that it will begin to have the intended impact in terms of a better use of the planet's resources."
Founder, Follow Your Heart
"In the early days of our restaurant, being a vegetarian was about as weird as you could get, ... whereas that term would have struck horror into people much in the same way that vegan does today," Goldberg said. "I think that that will pass. I think that's a matter of familiarity and that is, that word becomes more and more in use and normalized, the baggage that comes with it will fade into the distance."
Kruger agreed. Vegenaise is vegan, and there's no reason for the company not to proclaim that fact.
This frankness and honesty is a trademark of Follow Your Heart's corporate voice and business philosophy. Company officials don't see things in quite the same way as many of their counterparts in the CPG space. In a conversation with Food Dive, Goldberg went on about how he's opposed to food companies acting like tech firms and "cashing out" with an IPO, as well as his opposition to GMOs turning humans into guinea pigs. He also talked a lot about the importance of a plant-based diet to help the environment.
"It's a tipping point, but it's like the tip of an iceberg," Goldberg said. "I think this is a mega trend, a global mega trend, and I think that it will begin to have the intended impact in terms of a better use of the planet's resources."
The company's name is apt. Simon said Follow Your Heart's clear and straightforward ethical honesty has helped it win over consumers and build trust.
"I just think it's harder though to do that these days, as a startup, to really stay true to your brand," she said. "There are companies that are doing it, but I think that's the lesson is to stay true to your brand, ... to how you started, and to not lose sight of, you know, why you're doing this."
Kruger, who came to Follow Your Heart as a consultant from a previous career in the toy industry, said the passion and positioning of the company is why he's stayed so long.
"I don't know how many other companies are so committed, so mission-driven, and have created a culture around that mission that really informs what we do, and why we do it, and how we do it," Kruger said. "So that's a really exciting place to be — just to be not only part of this wave that is happening, but also to be leading it."