The Little Canoga Park Vegetarian Restaurant That Created the Natural Foods Industry
The vibe at Follow Your Heart cafe in the 1970s
Courtesy Follow Your Heart
Before “sustainable” was a term bloated with cultural cachet and venture-capitalist funding, there was a little health food store that helped start that arm of the food industry in 1973. North of L.A. in Canoga Park, Follow Your Heart sold avocado sandwiches for 95 cents.
It would go on to become a global natural-foods brand, raking in $50 million in sales last year. Along the way, owners Bob Goldberg and Paul Lewin — hippies in the ’70s, like many founders of the movement — would help shape how Americans eat. Their effect is profound: Thanks to them and their compatriots, organic spinach is normal. Whole wheat bread isn’t a rare item.
You probably recognize their flagship product, Vegenaise. It's an eggless mayo that's in the refrigerated section at Vons and Lassens. (The first syllable is pronounced “veg” as in “veggie,” not “vegan,” because the word vegan wasn’t in common use back then, though it was coined in 1944.)
Bob whipped up the first batch in 1975 when he discovered that the "plant-based" mayo they were using at the restaurant was actually conventional mayo, repackaged with false labels. Today, Vegenaise is sold in 23 countries and helped lead the way for an entire dairy-free industry. Kind of impressive for a hippie cafe.
The current exterior of Follow Your Heart, which is alive and well in Canoga Park
Courtesy Follow Your Heart
This isn’t about vegan food, though. This is about something much bigger: the natural-foods movement as a whole. It's a catch-all industry that has expanded to encompass organic, gluten-free, plant-based, paleo ... the list goes on.
One disclaimer about the term “natural” when it comes to food: It’s mostly a greenwashing device that can be slapped on anything. By its own admission, the FDA has “not developed a definition for use of the term 'natural' or its derivatives.” It’s historically been used to refer to food without artificial or synthetic additives. However, the term is vague at best and intentionally deceptive at worst.
The natural-foods industry, as related to this, is pretty much what you think it is: anything that’s healthy, or touted as such. Brands that most yupsters today think of as standard fare, such as Celestial Seasonings tea and Cascadian Farm cereal, were once radical counterculture innovations. They were dreamed up by idealistic young soul searchers on the fringes of the industrial food machine.
Of course, irony strikes and the snake eats its tail: Both of these companies have since been absorbed into that very machine. Celestial Seasonings is owned by Hain Celestial Group, Cascadian Farms by General Mills. It’s no secret that a handful of conglomerates owns some of the most recognizable feel-good brands out there, such as Annie’s and Larabar. Together, they're fighting for GMO secrecy.
In the ’70s, though, big companies weren’t courting these small brands. This was before green tech, VC funding and sustainable startups “built with MBA genius and Wall Street money,” Joe Dobrow reminds us, in his book Natural Prophets. The natural-foods movement was not seen as worth investing in; it’s only after customers started making a dent with their dollars, decades later, that food-industry titans followed suit.
Fifty years ago, additives and synthetics in food were de rigueur. The postwar reaction against them was only just kicking in. At a cocktail party in 1971, as Dobrow describes it, General Mills CEO C.W. Cook supposedly said, “One of these days, all of our food is going to be made in the labs out of chemicals.” This wasn’t an Orwellian warning; it was a hopeful promise.
Even the few health-food stores around mostly “sold vitamins, heavy on the pills,” Goldberg says.
This is weird, because the stereotype of ’70s food, especially in L.A., is “alfalfa sprouts and a plate of mashed yeast” — what Woody Allen ordered in Annie Hall. When that film came out in 1977, health-food stores and restaurants in L.A. had certainly progressed; popular spots included Golden Temple of Conscious Cookery and Mrs. Gooch Markets. Some of these restaurants appropriated Eastern spirituality, were creepily cult-y or both – The Source restaurant being the most infamous example. (It was where the Annie Hall scene was filmed, by the way. Today, it’s the site of Cabo Cantina.) The Source's founder, Jim Baker, was a yoga practitioner and accused murderer. Classic.
Despite this diverse proliferation of vegetable-forward restaurants, “There wasn’t a natural-foods industry built around them," Goldberg says. Whole wheat bread and any cereal not made by General Mills were still artisanal offerings.
It was in this context that Follow Your Heart sprang up. Bob Goldberg and Paul Lewin had both come West from Indiana after they’d been discharged from the Army. In between music gigs, they had taken to hanging out at Johnny Weissmuller's American Natural Foods in Canoga Park. In classic L.A. fashion, there’s a Hollywood connection: Weissmuller had played Tarzan in a string of films, and before that had racked up Olympic gold medals in swimming. In 1973, when the store and its little food bar went up for sale, Lewin and Goldberg — along with Spencer Windbiel and Michael Besançon — bought it for $15,000 (a steal, they say). They eventually renamed it Follow Your Heart.
When they took over, however, the store didn’t have much in the way of "natural foods." It “served hamburgers on whole grain buns with alfalfa sprouts. That was health food,” Goldberg remembers.
The second and current location of Follow Your Heart, which in 1976, in a move rich in symbolism, took over an old butcher shop
Courtesy Follow Your Heart
The first thing the new owners did was throw out all the meat, though they kept eggs and dairy, which the store still carries. (Follow Your Heart’s branded products, however, are now all vegan.) It was a radical move then, and it’s a radical move now. Despite L.A.’s Erewhon and Lassens, there are only a couple of exclusively vegetarian/vegan groceries in the city. (Organix is a great one, and its made-to-order burgers are killer.)
The owners got a lot of criticism for the move. “They said, you’ll never make it without meat,” Goldberg recalls. But all four owners were vegetarian at that point, and it just felt like the right thing to do. "I came face to face with the whole idea of having to kill something,” he told the Jewish Journal in 2006, referencing his objection to Vietnam. “I went from not wanting to kill people to not wanting to kill at all.”
Despite his meat-and-potatoes upbringing in Chicago, Goldberg had “had a number of experiences ... which had called into question the cruel nature of killing animals,” he says. “Like most of us, I had pushed it to the back of my mind, because it’s an uncomfortable thing to think about.”
After arriving in L.A. and talking frequently with Besançon, who was on a “spiritual quest,” Goldberg decided to try vegetarianism to see if he felt different.
He did. “I felt different about who I was. I felt different about my place in the world. I was much more comfortable in my own skin.” (When I asked if he ever got cravings, he says yes. He never went back.) As for Lewin, a large motivation was health: Heart disease ran in the family, and his mother died of it.
The environmental impact of a plant-based diet was just beginning to be explored. The first Earth Day had occurred just three years earlier, in 1970, sparking the modern environmental movement.
On a parallel track, “The natural-foods movement was just in its infancy,” Goldberg says, and the quartet was in front of the wave. By 1980, natural-food merchandisers started holding national conventions. “Retailers from all over the country came, and all of a sudden we realized we were getting into a big movement. We were helping define what 'natural foods' was.” Representatives from a small grocery called Whole Foods were in attendance, Bob remembers. It, too, was just getting started.
From 1973 to 1988, Follow Your Heart remained a local restaurant and grocery. It's still open today; rainbow-colored socks and musical instruments share shelf space with vegan mayo.
In the ’80s, though, the namesake consumer-packaged goods line hadn’t yet been born, although the Vegenaise they were whipping up for their sandwiches was increasingly popular. People would come in and ask for some to take home; Bob and Paul would put it in a little cup to give to them. People would move away and even write to them, asking them to ship it. They couldn't find anything like it anywhere else.
The owners tried, at one point, to bottle it and distribute it, but it separated before it got to shelves. It had to be shipped back. They were OK with focusing on their restaurant and grocery, which was enjoying a decent amount of business.
The avocado sandwich with tomato and sprouts ran 95 cents; add a cup of soup and kefir drink and the whole thing would set you back $1.25 in 1973. (The menu below reflects subsequent price increases.)
One of the earlier (but not the earliest) Follow Your Heart menus from the ’70s
Courtesy Follow Your Heart
To put this in perspective, a McDonald’s quarter pounder with cheese and fries cost $1.23 in 1973 in Staten Island.
"Soup was like 20 cents,” Goldberg remembers. “We wanted the food to be accessible. It wasn’t a soup kitchen, we were making money. But we did have a very altruistic motive.”
The natural-foods movement has gotten a lot of slack for being for rich white people. Dobrow calls it "yupscale." Whole Foods, aka Whole Paycheck, has borne the brunt of this criticism, partly because of its visibility, partly because it actually is 19% more expensive than other health food stores, according to Business Insider in 2016.
In the face of food's gentrification, Follow Your Heart’s restaurant prices are still pretty affordable. A cup of vegan soup will cost you $4.50, two tamales will set you back $7 and a gluten-free breadstick is 35 cents. That's not to say that its retail products are necessarily cheap — a box of Yogi Tea or jar of vegan ranch dressing is more expensive than its conventional counterparts.
In 1988 Follow Your Heart's tofu salads caught the eye of a local grocery chain. It asked Follow Your Heart to start packaging some for distribution. That chain was Trader Joe’s, which launched its present iteration in 1967 in Pasadena. Joe Coulombe, its founder, was inspired by the tiki trend that was birthed in L.A., and he incorporated these tropical motifs into his store. He sourced "exotic" and refined products that were intended to be transportive. Today, the chain is still known for its relatively affordable, European-style cheeses and cured meats.
Follow Your Heart's delivery trucks helped in their wholesale efforts.
Courtesy Follow Your Heart
Packaging deli items for Trader Joe’s gave Goldberg and Lewin training in how to scale operations. It was a welcome opportunity after a rough time for the owners. Just a few years prior, in 1985, co-owner Besançon had decided he wanted out of the company, forcing the others to buy him out for about $250,000. The point of contention had been how to grow the business: Goldberg liked being at the store, and that’s precisely why he didn’t want to launch more outposts. He and Lewin wanted the business to grow, but deliberately and slowly. Besançon craved more of a vertical challenge, and he ended up fulfilling that at Whole Foods, where he'd expanded its stores from 30 to more than 300 by the time he retired in 2012. Today, there’s no ill will between them, Goldberg says.
After the drama died down, the Trader Joe’s partnership allowed the Follow Your Heart partners to find a way to expand their business: through wholesale, rather than brick-and-mortar stores. After a few years of doing this successfully, Goldberg and Lewin thought they’d give Vegenaise another try in the early ‘90s.
They knew they couldn’t pull off a shelf-stable formula; their product had to be refrigerated. The only problem was, how would they get customers to look in the cold case for mayo? Thirty years ago, most groceries didn’t feature endless permutations of spreads, dips and sauces. There weren’t any other vegan mayos on the market. Goldberg and Lewin were launching a new category and a new customer experience.
"We put it on the market and we talked a lot about how you can find it in the refrigerated case,” Lewin says. It worked. The product caught on almost immediately, and has since spawned a line of dressings and flavored spreads.
In the early ’90s, the industry started shifting. Health food stores starting calling themselves natural-food stores, shedding their hippie vibe. By the middle of the decade, the natural-foods industry was “simply exploding,” Dobrow writes in his book. “Some of the leading natural-foods brands — like Earthbound Farm salads, Stonyfield Farm yogurt, Celestial Seasonings tea ... had all crossed over to become mainstays in conventional supermarkets, as well.”
This was possible, in part, because some of these brands were acquired by the agri-industrial juggernauts they had spent so long fighting against. On one hand, they finally got to see their organic, counterculture products line grocery store shelves all across the nation; on the other, their products were sometimes changed in the process.
Odwalla, started in 1980, was forced to sell out to Coca-Cola after finding itself in a financially precarious situation in 1996 after a health scare. Its founder, Greg Steltenpohl, has said, “For Coke, the thinking was 'fresh juice is becoming important, we need a fresh juice, Odwalla will fill that need.' They never saw the enormous potential of the Odwalla brand and instead saw it as just another product in the juice portfolio.”
Today, Steltenpohl runs Califia Farms out of downtown L.A. The company’s anchor product is almond milks that are becoming increasingly common in grocery stores. Intelligentsia and a bunch of other coffee shops around the city use them for their iced lattes.
Not all formerly mom-and-pop brands think acquisition is bad — and, of course, the payout is pretty handsome. Seth Goldman, a Yale MBA grad who co-founded Honest Tea in the late ’90s, knew from the beginning that he wanted to build a national brand. Coca-Cola bought the company in 2011. Goldman says Honest Tea has been given a lot of autonomy to preserve the spirit of its products while enjoying greater distribution.
Perhaps the most curious anecdote is that of Beyond Meat. The VC-funded, green-tech company is headquartered in El Segundo and known for its bleeding burgers and pea protein meat crumbles. Beyond Meat also helped shift industry language from "vegan" — which for some conjures up images of blood-stained fur coats — to "plant-based," a little less threatening and more science-y. Last October, Tyson bought a 5% stake in the company.
On the company blog, founder Ethan Brown proposed going “beyond” the dichotomy of meat vs. no meat, us vs. them. His thinking seems to be, if a partnership with Tyson helps Beyond Meat fund its research (Bill Gates is already an investor), why not? Can an industrial chicken and pork producer accused of horrific animal abuse (per Forbes) help further veganism? (Don't click that link if you don’t want to be severely disturbed, by the way.) Does the end justify the means?
For his part, Goldberg weighs in carefully. “People are experimenting with different ways of getting [the message] out there,” he tells me. “It’s not that different from us selling dairy and eggs in our store, because we’re trying to reach other people. Ultimately, the idea is to reach the most people.”
He readily admits he and Lewin could have scaled the company faster and bigger if they had accepted outside funding. They still get requests almost every day. But they still own 100% of Follow Your Heart. Fifty million dollars in sales last year and distribution in 23 countries ain't shabby.
The Follow Your Heart founders, from left: Bob Goldberg, Spencer Windbiel, Michael Besançon and Paul Lewin
Courtesy Follow Your Heart
There’s something to be said for sepia-toned idealism of the natural-foods movement, anchored in L.A. and dreamed up by hippies. For all its downfalls — the occasional cult, mashed yeast — there was something refreshing about its sentimentality. No one could have guessed, however, how powerfully it would shift our country in decades to come.
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