Brewing up ethics-based business

Seth Goldman (Courtesy of Honest Tea)

Dabbling in his kitchen when returning to his home after a run through the streets of his Chevy Chase, Md., neighborhood, Seth Goldman was mixing a scattering of ingredients in a thermos to create a drinkable beverage that was high in healthy organics and low in unhealthy sugar.

That was nearly 20 years ago, 1997. It was also about a decade after earning a Harvard degree, with a major in government, and when he had little inkling that his kitchen fooling around would soon become Honest Tea, a brew of water and leaves that is now a staple on the shelves of 100,000 stores, such as Safeway, Kroger and Whole Foods, and in eateries like Wendy's. In 2015, sales totaled 300 million bottles holding such flavors as savorable Pomegranate Blue and exotic Lemon Tulsi.

"The first 10 years were really lean and challenging," Goldman told my peace studies class at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High school last spring. He had partnered with Barry Nalebuff, one of his professors at Yale's graduate school of management, both of them amateurs in dealing with the pros: bottlers, distributors, dominant food chains, federal regulators and the banks.

"We were breaking even," he recalled, "so we weren't losing a ton of money. We had to get investors to raise funds to help us grow. And if we succeeded, they'll get their money back. Our founding investors, those who wrote us checks in 1998, 10 years later earned 26 times their money. They took a risk and were rewarded."

As was Goldman, and then some. What began as a gamble looking for a modest market share was bought, in large part, by Coca-Cola in 2008, a deal that earned the kitchen dabbler "tens of millions of dollars," according to The Washington Post.

I'm left to idly speculate where the Coca-Cola loot has been stashed, but I do know that Goldman did not buy a Lamborghini for his wife and three sons, join a yacht club or a country club, or move into a well-gated mansion. He did splurge, though, in buying 550 bicycles for his employees -- the better to get around the way he does as a free spirit and free-wheeling commuter between home and office.

A vegetarian and triathlon athlete who lives alcohol, tobacco and caffeine-free, he tells my students: "There's an easy formula for happiness. It's when what you have is greater than what you want. Most people would say the way to be happy is to have more. I say the way to be happy is to want less."

The Coca-Cola sale enabled Goldman to be free of the daily CEO decisions he made for 18 years at Honest Tea, work such as traveling to Latin American villages to meet and support organic tea growers and choosing which peppermint plants to buy in the U.S.

From one ethics-based company, he recently signed on with another -- as executive chairman of the board for Beyond Meat, a California firm that sells plant-based food products. It was founded in 2009 by Ethan Brown, a vegan who was as sensitive to the misery and slaughter of billions of animals for America's flesh eaters as he was to the unhealthiness of meat when substitutes are available.

"I'm fired up every day about what I'm doing with Beyond Meat," Goldman says, placing himself among those capitalists who twin personal morals with professional ethics. "With Beyond Meat, we have a chance to transform not just diets but also what happens to our ecosystem or to animals. But I have to keep in mind, even if I care passionately about protecting the lives of all creatures, I have to make sure this product is competitive. ... Most people will buy this product only if it tastes delicious, if it cooks well on a grill, if it goes well with ketchup and mustard. We have to be commercially competitive."

It appears as if it is. In one variety or another, Beyond Meat is now sold in 7,500 stores, up from 360 in 2013 as reported in The New York Times. Whole Foods began carrying Beyond Meat's products in 2013, the same year PETA hailed it as company of the year.

Most likely, what Goldman is now doing for Beyond Meat will include having to deal with the macho crowd that wants to gnaw the real thing and not fake meat. In reality, animal flesh is what's actually fake: the falsity and plasticity that denies the cruelty and hellishness of factory farming.

If we're going to have Honest Tea, let it include washing down a plateful of Beyond Meat -- Honest Meat, really.

[Colman McCarthy, a former Washington Post columnist, directs the Center for Teaching Peace in Washington, D.C.]

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