My version of heaven is a place where the clouds are filled with a never-ending supply of Vegenaise. It has been my crack for the last 13 years.
I am not vegan nor do I aspire to be one. It is just a really good product. I know that I definitely am not alone in thinking this. I have absolutely no shame in admitting that I go through one quart a month, and I always, always, have a backup tub stashed in my refrigerator in case I have a voracious month and go through it more quickly. Whether smothered generously on Mexican-style street corn, mixed into into a cold pasta salad, served as a creamy topping for patatas bravas, used as a binder for a seafood salad, or made into a secret sauce-style burger spread for your favorite veggie burger, the possibilities for Vegenaise are seriously endless.
Don't get it twisted, though: I am not one of those weirdoes who eats it right out of the tub by the spoonful.
Nonetheless, I was freaking the fuck out when I had the opportunity to take a tour of the facilities where it is manufactured in Chatsworth, California, in a factory called Earth Island. I was finally going to have my Violet Beauregard moment from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, except, instead of rolling out as a giant blueberry, I was going to metamorphose into a six-foot-tall tub of Vegenaise and gracefully float into the sky. My version of Willy Wonka was Matt Dunaj, the company's director of accounting, whom I met at Expo West earlier this year. He was to show me around the 100-percent solar-powered space.
My tour began with a photo next to Follow Your Heart's giant mascot, Vegemoji, that Dunaj assembled in his mom's garage. Dunaj lets me know that he is also the "office hero." After that glorious moment and getting over being starstruck, I met one of their chief scientists who was riding the high of creating the company's new line of vegan Parmesan, which just hit shelves this year. This, along with the company's eerily egg-like new vegan egg product, confirmed that I was indeed in the LA version of Willy Wonka's chocolate factory.
After we met with the scientist, Dunaj guided me down a flight of stairs next to four 80,000-pound oil tanks that holds the four oils—canola, grapeseed, safflower, and organic soybean—that they use for their different Vegenaises. He informs me that the factory goes through so much that new oil gets delivered almost daily. The production for all of their products has grown exponentially with the recent trendiness of food consciousness in America, especially their flagship product of Vegenaise. "We are in over 12,000 grocery stores and quickly growing in the US alone," Dunaj informs me. "We've expanded into over ten countries with another warehouse in the UK."
The company was founded in 1970. It has gone from a 1,300-square-foot health food store owned by four dudes in the San Fernando Valley to a 140,000-square-foot vegan product powerhouse with 120 employees. In order to keep up with the world's insatiable demand for the first ever vegetable-based mayonnaise, invented in 1977. Last year the company implemented a gargantuan mixer that has the power to emulsify more than 50 million pounds of luscious Vegenaise per year. However, they are easing into that goal. Dunaj assures me that they will probably reach the 50-million mark in three to five years. He also assures me that despite implementing the new machine, they have not replaced any human jobs with robots. In fact, some of the workers there have been filling Vegenaise jars by hand for over 20 years, and some of them are way faster than the machines—filling 3,000 jars per hour, to be exact.
The day I visited, production was focused on the soy-free version of Vegenaise. This made things all the better because it is my Vegenaise of choice. For this variety, soy protein powder is replaced with pea protein powder, a type of plant protein that has been having its 15 minutes of fame recently.
It all starts with apple cider vinegar that is poured into a drum. The company chooses to use the fruit-based vinegar rather than a traditional one made from grain because it has a better flavor. After this, brown rice syrup is added to mellow out the acidity. Then, a tad of lemon juice concentrate is also added for a slight citrus flavor. All the while, salt, mustard powder, and protein powder are mixed with water to create a slurry, to which tiny droplets of water and oil are added, creating a thick, creamy emulsion. This is when the vinegar and syrup mixture is mixed in.
After each batch is tested for texture and flavor by both humans and robots, then the real magic happens: A giant hopper fills eight tubs of Vegenaise at a time. The hopper can fill one jar per second, which means a whole lot of sandwiches and burgers around the world will now be safe from being dry and flavorless for months to come.
The tour is concluded with a few free samples of Vegenaise and vegan cheeses, and just like that my Willy Wonka-meets-Unwrapped condiment dreams are now complete.