Veganaise has become a well-known alternative to mayonnaise in healthy cuisine, but its viability as a product was not always a sure thing. The parent company Follow Your Heart started as a seven-seat juice bar in the back of a health food store in 1970. This was when many people only thought of having a small glass of orange juice for breakfast, not a beverage to refuel, rehydrate, or replace a milkshake, made from just about every fruit available. The four owners wanted to bring healthy living to the forefront and create a place to foster it in their California neighborhood.
You can sit at the original counter, that is a bit bigger now, a few blocks down from that first location. It’s inside the long-standing Canoga Park restaurant and grocery store. While most of the “back to health”-type of eateries and shops from that period have folded, Follow Your Heart’s basic philosophy saved it from oblivion and turned it into a thriving company that has branched off into making vegan cheeses, in addition to the many varieties of their Veganaise.
Bob Goldberg and his partner Paul Lewin have known each other for most of their lives and are still heading up their enterprise. They went to school together, were in the army together, and chose a vegetarian lifestyle after their experiences with service. They joined Michael Besancon and Spencer Windbiel with Follow Your Heart and they all lived a heart-first philosophy. Goldberg says that one of his favorite things is to welcome in the people who come to their stores. Even now, 48 years later, he goes to the restaurant each day to taste the soups or pick up something to eat, always interacting with his staff and customers. As head of the product side of Follow Your Heart, he works out of the company’s nearby offices under the name Earth Island, but keeps the sense of community that Goldberg says started early on.
Their customers stuck with them through difficult times too. When Follow Your Heart had a second location in Santa Barbara and owed a huge tax bill that they couldn’t pay, the team decided to see if they could raise the funds they needed with their own client base. They posted an open letter at each check stand, calling the program “Friends of the Heart.”
“We invited people to invest in us for a really high interest rate and a discount in the store for as long as they had the loan out.” Goldberg thought it was a terrific deal but he didn’t know if anyone would actually put money in. If they couldn’t make it work, the four men faced losing both stores and everything they had built. Customers did come forward, many with $5,000 and $10,000 investments. In a very short amount of time, Follow Your Heart could pay the enormous amount they owed to the government, and only a few years later, all of the money was paid back to the happy clientele who got to be a part of it.
The store continues to foster community with yoga events, nature hikes, and a wide variety of wares from books and crystals, to toys and textiles, that you wouldn’t normally see in a grocery store or restaurant. It’s a warm place to visit where service is friendly and seems to run as efficiently as a high end hotel.
Diversification became a secret to Follow Your Heart’s longevity. When one store or branch of the business wasn’t going well, another arm usually was. Veganaise became a huge success, but it had a rocky start as a standalone product. They tried a non-refrigerated vegan mayo that didn’t have the same taste as the fresh refrigerated version we all know. The steadiness of the stores gave them time to develop it into what it is today.
They closed the Santa Barbara store in 1997, bringing the focus on their Canoga Park location. Now, the product line is expanding. Rolling out later this summer will be 10 flavors of vegan yogurt. They have a vegan egg product on the shelves, and are bringing a liquid version you can pour and use straight from the fridge. They have also developed a ready-to-pour pancake batter called Rocket Cakes (comes in a rocket shaped container) that is as allergen-free as possible. There are caring touches behind everything with the Follow Your Heart name because it all reflects the owners. When so much of our lives is controlled by large corporations, it is nice to know that success can still happen from doing something with a lot of heart.
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Header image courtesy of Follow Your Heart.