Food & Drink

Why Honest Tea Cofounder Seth Goldman Has Moved On To Mushrooms

In 1998, Seth Goldman and his cofounder, Barry Nalebuff, disrupted the iced tea business with the launch of Honest Tea. The company offered fair-trade, bottled, organic brews with less sugar than other tea brands and a strong social and environmental mission. A decade later, their stunning success didn’t go unnoticed: the Coca Cola Company bought a 40% stake in the company for $43 million in 2008, and acquired the rest three years later for an undisclosed sum. Goldman continued to work at Honest Tea after the sale, staying with the business until the end of 2019.

Now, Goldman, who is also chairman of plant-based meats pioneer Beyond Meat, is applying his vision and entrepreneurial smarts to a new plant-based snack business. Earlier this year, his Bethesda, Md.-based company, Eat the Change, which he cofounded with restaurateur and chef Spike Mendelsohn, launched its first product line: five flavors of organic mushroom jerky made with imperfect mushrooms that might otherwise go to waste. We spoke recently about why he is taking the entrepreneurial plunge once again.

During his 23 years at Honest Tea, Goldman couldn’t imagine he could be “as excited or passionate about any other enterprise,” he tells me. But during his time on the board of Beyond Meat, including a stint as executive chair from 2015 to 2020, he realized his strong commitment to plant-based, environmentally responsible food. After Beyond Meat went public in 2019 and they put a top-tier management team into place, Goldman says he felt like, “maybe now I could create another new enterprise.”

What to do next? He took himself through an “interesting exercise,” he says. “I’m lucky to have gotten in and out of the beverage industry with my shirt still on my back. I didn’t want to go back to beverage and I didnt want to go into something that competed directly with Beyond Meat. The issues I care about are around health and sustainability.”

The other big trend that motivated his thinking: the “snackification of the American diet.” As people eat fewer meals and more in between meals, he figured whatever he created should be “nutrient-dense.”

For a starting point, mushrooms fit the bill perfectly, as an incredibly efficient, and nutritious crop, he says. From a culinary perspective, they were ideal as well: “For Spike, mushrooms are the perfect canvas,” Goldman explains. “They can take on any flavor. That’s what led us to mushroom jerky.”

Their savory jerky comes in chewy but moist pieces, flavored in a variety of ways, from a simple sea salt and cracked pepper to spicy habanero bbq. I could easily see taking a pouch on a hike or camping trip, or just snacking on them during the day—which I did.

But this is far from the first mushroom jerky to hit the market. I recently tastedMoku Foods’ tasty mushroom jerky, which comes in long strips. Goldman says the fact that Eat the Change only uses organic mushroom and that the products are chef-crafted sets them apart from the competition Eat the Change’s mushrooms come from a fourth-generation, organic family farm in Pennsylvania. They utilize undersized, oversized and bruised cremini and portobello mushrooms that don’t make it to store shelves. Eliminating food waste is a central mission of the brand. Roughly a third of the food we grow doesn’t make it to market, Goldman says. “All the land, energy and water used to raise those crops is wasted.”

“And the other thing that we are doing is we are building a brand. This is not a mushroom jerky company,” he says. “This is a platform brand.”

Other products under development will follow the same basic principles. They’ll be organic, plant-based and nutrient-dense. They’ll also help to reduce food waste by utilizing food that otherwise go unused. And they plan to seek widespread distribution, from food service to convenience stores to unlikely retail settings.

“One of our early accounts was a hardware chain,” says Goldman. “They reorder every month. They have it right by the cash register.”

Increasing biodiversity in food is also important to Goldman and Mendelsohn, a former Top Chef contestant, who now faces the real-life challenge of making tasty products that don’t rely on the six food crops —corn, wheat, sugar cane, soy, rice and potatoes— that represent about 57% of all agricultural production.That lack of biodiversity leaves the food system less secure and resilient in the face of weather events and pest infestations.

Goldman wouldn’t get too specific about where they’re going next, except to say the new products involve a “diversity of occasions and audiences.” But here’s a big hint: “One of the most successful things we did with Honest Tea is to bring it into the kids aisle,” he says. Their launch of Honest Kids in McDonald’s resulted in the sale of over 200 million units in the first year alone, saving kids 45 calories on every bottle, compared with the brand they replaced. It also showed Goldman that kids can adjust their palates to prefer things that are less sweet.

Eat the Change is still in startup mode and most of its $5 million raised to date has come from Goldman. “We obviously want to grow fast,” Goldman says. “Fast growth is critical. It’s the lifeblood of any company, but the right kind of growth is most important.”

There are nine full time staffers, plus a bevy of summer interns, many of whom are doing tastings in stores. In this era of COVID-19, they decided to pack samples in individual bags so customers would feel secure.

“This summer is all about getting the jerky out,” Goldman says.

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