Origin Story Interview W/ Frederique De Clercq, Fred's Mayo

Origin Story Interview W/ Frederique De Clercq, Fred's Mayo

Brighter Future

 / 

Jun 7, 2023

#BrighterFuture #entrepreneurship #Sustainability #ClimateChangeSolution #originstoryseries #seekthechange #mayonaise #chickpeamayo #plantbaseddelights #foodinnovation #plantbased #mayo #vegan #PlantBasedProducts #VeganFood #Upcycling #HealthyEating #MayonnaiseRevolution

Brighter Future

We had the pleasure of talking with Frederique De Clercq, the Founder of Fred's Mayo.

Thank you so much for being with us, Fred. Could introduce yourself and your work?

Yes! I’m Fred, I’m Belgian, and I love mayonnaise.

Two years ago, I had an idea. My family and I had switched to a plant-based diet due to the urgent need to address both animal suffering and climate change.

But traditional mayonnaise uses eggs, and we had to cut those out if we wanted to be plant-based. As a Belgian, though, life just wasn’t the same without it. Mayonnaise is a staple in our culture— especially with our famous fries (or “chips,” or frites). Belgian frites with mayonnaise at a random side-street friterie during a good night out with friends? That combination is extremely good.

I really needed mayonnaise! So I tried buying some vegan mayo options I saw in some supermarkets, but they just didn’t work; they were badly lacking in both flavour and texture. As I’d heard something about whipped foods being made with the water left over from boiling chickpeas— called aquafaba— I decided to experiment with it.

After a lot of hard work, I landed on something pretty amazing. Even my kids couldn't tell the difference between my new vegan mayonnaise and the standard one we used to make with eggs from the chickens in our backyard.

That was my Eureka moment. As I like to say with Fred’s, we “cracked the mayo code without cracking a single egg!” And that’s when I decided to start my business.

To make our product, we had to develop specific production methods to ensure the right consistency of our aquafaba. We also needed to be able to do something useful with the leftover chickpeas from our production process, of course, so we partnered with Cool Beans Foods. They use our leftover chickpeas in premade plant-based meals.

Because we cook so many chickpeas, Fred’s is also working on using the leftovers in some vegan alternatives for other foods often cooked at friteries: we’ve got a vegan burger concept and a vegan sausage in the works, with the goal to sell these along with our mayonnaise to fry shops.

This led to our unique upcycling process. Our core product consists of doing something impressive with chickpea cooking-water— turning it into mayonnaise, of all things!— and then we find great uses for the leftover cooked chickpeas, which can’t be made into mayonnaise, by turning them into other products.

Last year in August, we had an amazing response to our product tasting session at the Vegan Summer Fest in Ghent. We got great reviews; people were shocked that vegan mayo could taste like the real thing, which was really vindicating. One of our aims is to make the world more plant-based, and to offer people full-fledged alternatives to traditional animal-based products. In this way, we hope to make it easier for people to switch to a plant-based diet.

We can make a real difference in the world by providing alternatives to traditional products like butter, cheese, and mayonnaise. Vegan Summer Fest had a lot of vegan attendees, but also attracted many flexitarians who were impressed with our plant-based mayonnaise and all the other cool vegan stuff. We’re proud to be a part of the plant-based food revolution, and hope to help make a real change.

What drives you to help others become vegan?

Well, I got into veganism because it made me really sad to see animals suffer from human dietary choices. It’s important to address our global need for a protein source shift from plants instead of animals. Animals are no different from humans, in my opinion. We’re all equal beings, and it’s our responsibility as humans to prevent animal suffering. Of course, there are also various environmental reasons why we should shift to a vegan diet.

I hope that people are becoming more aware of these issues. It seems like they are, as evidenced by events like Vegan Summer Fest— but in any case, I think it’s clear now that food producers have a responsibility (to the welfare of animals, as well as the environment) to create good plant-based alternatives to traditional animal products. We must also adopt a positive attitude towards these products and promote their use.

I’m sure that not everybody will transition to a fully plant-based diet, but I hope for it, nevertheless. In any case, I strongly believe we can make a significant difference if we can convince people to start adopting a flexible eating approach and reduce their meat consumption to once or twice a week.

With the success of our vegan mayonnaise at Summerfest, including our tartare-style mayonnaise and the red-orange sauce Andalouse, a slightly spicy mayonnaise based on tomatoes, bell peppers, and onions, we're also developing other varieties of mayonnaise, like garlic and curry.

We know vegans will love our products because we’re giving them a great animal-free equivalent to the typically non-vegan condiments that they love. That said, our primary focus is on the more flexible eaters, who are willing to go animal-free but have been hesitant. In Belgium, as elsewhere, there are simply many more of these people than vegans.

If we can show this on-the-fence group that they don’t have to make any sacrifice on taste and texture in their mayonnaise, the switch to more plant-based eating will be much easier for them.

Your mission is fantastic, and as an aside, sauce Andalouse is probably my favourite thing to put on fries. Do you think you could tell us a little about your origins?

As far as food businesses go, this isn’t my first rodeo. Before I went vegan, I started a hamburger restaurant in Kortrijk, Belgium. That was in 2009. We had our own production facility, including a bakery and a butchery operation, and we even cut our own potatoes for our fries. We had these great soft potato buns, our own oven, and dough-kneading machinery. We would grind our beef at the start of every morning. We also made our own sauces, which is where my passion for mayonnaise comes from.

The burger place was very popular, I’m happy to say, and after three years, we had to move to a more prominent location. Unfortunately, the building needed renovations, and two neighbours boycotted the project. They filed lawsuits and delayed us for a year and a half. The experience was pretty painful, and I ended up having to give up my hamburger dreams. I went to work for other companies, but I still had my passion for food and the desire to run my own business. This is why I started experimenting with Fred’s Mayo.

When did you become aware of the impact of animal products on the environment and decide to switch to a vegan diet?

Around five years ago, I realised that I could no longer tolerate the suffering of animals. As I reduced my consumption of meat products, I also noticed that my taste for them changed. I used to enjoy meat products, but as I ate them less frequently, they became less appetising. Eating meat is unfortunately a habit we grow up with. You know how beer doesn't taste good the first time you try it, and it becomes an acquired taste? I feel this was my experience with meat products.

The main reason I became vegan was the intense suffering that occurs while producing animal products. Also, the overproduction of animals for meat consumption is a major issue, especially in the US. I was horrified by the inhumane treatment of animals shown in documentaries, and I believe this really needs to stop as soon as possible.

I want to inspire others to eat more plant-based foods and switch to a vegan diet. That’s why I’m so passionate about my mission with Fred’s Vegan. I’m also part of the KIKET project in Belgium, which investigates how to grow chickpeas more productively locally and work with large companies to make the transition to plant-based diets more accessible.

While a vegan diet may sometimes require importing foods from other countries, this can be a compromise that is not necessarily better for the environment. However, I like that you have pointed out the availability of locally sourced chickpeas, which is very positive.

Chickpeas can now be grown in Belgium due to climate change, which is making the region warmer and drier. As humans, we need to adapt. We live in strange times with many things going on, but I'm happy to be a part of the KIKET project.

Local sources are very important to us. We make Fred’s Mayo in West Flanders, and we partner with another West Flanders company that grows a circular oyster mushroom burger from coffee grounds they collect from bars, restaurants, and cafés. It’s called KopjeZwam, which literally means “cup of oyster.” Their burger is entirely plant-based, and we want to work together in a partnership with them. We’ve created a vegan bun together, and want to pair it with the mushroom burger and our various kinds of Fred’s Vegan mayonnaise. So many things are happening, and it all starts spontaneously. You meet these people and talk and a beautiful relationship suddenly grows out of a joint mission. It's an amazing journey.

What would you say is the most fulfilling thing about your work?

Connecting with like-minded people that are on the same mission to make the world more plant-based and better for animals and people is very fulfilling. It is exciting to meet these people, establish great partnerships, and to join forces by uniting our complementary products to make a difference together. Seeing our almost-finished products after so much hard work is a great feeling. I never thought we’d come this far when I started two years ago. It's rewarding to see the reactions of people tasting our products and to witness our brand's evolution. Being driven by passion is the most fulfilling thing.

It sounds like you're having a lot of fun on your journey.

We've had a lot of fun but also many sleepless nights. There's been a lot of wondering: “Where will we go in the world with everything going on right now? Will raw material prices keep increasing? What will happen in a year or two?” There are so many things in the world going on that keep me awake at night.

Also launching a new food product takes so, so, so long. Everything from product development to brand development, to lab testing, and so on. And our upcycling takes time to set up. There are practically a million things to think about, and that entails lots of careful planning. I have a lot of sleepless nights.

What was the biggest challenge you have faced since you started?

The biggest challenge was creating an additive-free emulsion without animal products. Making an emulsion in food is one of the hardest things to do— the magic occurs on a molecular level— and it’s especially difficult in vegan products, as animal proteins are often good enablers of the process. That’s why eggs are traditionally used in mayonnaise.

The stability of the emulsion is essential, and it has to be microbiologically stable, too, so that the shelf life is good.

For our mayonnaise, it can be kept at room temperature for a year, but getting it to that point was a considerable challenge. We worked with a laboratory to check the shelf life, pH acidity, and other factors to ensure the quality of our products.

This kind of food product development was new to me, and I had to learn everything from scratch. But seeing the end product and people blown away by our products at vegan events was fulfilling. As an entrepreneur, finding solutions to problems is the main task. There are problems every day, and you're trying to find a solution for those problems. Sometimes it's difficult, but you can overcome the challenges with the right partnerships and advice.

When I started Fred’s, the hardest part was being alone and figuring everything out myself. But now, we are a team of three partners, each with his or her own strengths and which complement each other well. We make a good team, and I'm grateful for the people I've met during my journey.

Could you tell us about the failures and mistakes you have experienced throughout your career?  Which were the biggest, and what lessons did you learn from them?

When I was younger, I used to be very shy, and speaking in front of a class or even having a conversation was sometimes difficult. It held me back in doing things I wanted to. But working at my hamburger restaurant forced me to talk to people, since we had an open kitchen. I had to interact with customers face-to-face. This was a huge boost for me and helped me overcome my shyness.

I learned a lot about interacting with people, especially on a business level. It was also a revelation that I had an inner voice that could speak out and that I wasn't as shy as I thought.

I learned a lot from the failures as well. Because I worked from five in the morning until eleven at night, seven days a week, it was challenging. But I was motivated by the fact that we were working on something beautiful that people loved.

Of course, there were also tough times, such as problems with our neighbours who obstructed our building renovation. I learned everything that comes your way would come; and if it wasn’t meant to be, then it wasn’t meant to be.

Maybe I needed to learn certain things to do what I wanted to do now. This gave me a platform for the next step, and it gave me the motivation to continue.

I find it fascinating the mindset that you developed from failure: that you can leave things behind and not cling on to them, and use them as a platform for whatever follows.

I wouldn’t be able to do what I did back then. Not because of the hard work, but because it was animal-based. We used to make chicken and beef burgers, which I knew were great products. But now we all follow a plant-based diet, and I can no longer create those products. Fred’s Mayo is our next thing, and I see it as the next challenge. I believe our product is a condiment for the future: you might say it’s a mayo with a mission. Along with other products we wish to create, like our fried foods, and the Cool Beans ready-made meals using our chickpeas. If we can achieve this, it would be amazing.

When did you first discover your entrepreneurial spirit?

Well, it was in my youth. Growing up, my family and I visited Los Angeles a lot because my father had a business restoring classic cars from the 50s and 60s. While there, we often went to fast-food burger places like In-N-Out Burger. Have you ever been? I really love those burgers.

When I was 17 or 18, I started to think about the possibility of bringing this concept to Belgium and how it could be a huge success. That's when I realised I could identify market gaps and create business plans to address them. I decided to pursue a degree in marketing to develop my ideas further, and combined them with an evening course in cooking. I eventually created a business plan and presented it to the bank. That's when everything started to come together.

Did you start your first business alone too?

I had support from my parents, because my dad's entrepreneurial experience helped me out. He assisted with the production facility and my mum lent a hand at the restaurant. I received a lot of support from them. Through running the burger place, I realised I was not confident, and I wished to express myself. This led me to develop my skills, and I transformed myself from being shy to being more open and business-minded.

Were there any books, movies, speeches, or people that inspired you?

Many teachers in marketing inspired me as they provided me with a lot of insights.

The movie that inspired me most— I’ve watched it ten or eleven times— is “The Founder” with Michael Keaton. The movie is about the rise of McDonald's, and while what he did was not (entirely) good, he was incredibly driven by his passion for making McDonald's the number one fast-food chain.

The movie inspires me because I admire his dedication to achieving his goal. I’ve also read some books, such as Kotler's work on marketing principles, but my own passion mostly drives me. For example, with my burger place, I had never baked bread or made burgers before when I started. I think my strength is that I go all the way and put in 100% effort to ensure success, though, and it really works.

I love to create something out of nothing, like the condiments we’re launching now. Product development and branding of food are what I enjoy doing the most, and after a hopefully successful launch of the Fred’s Mayo line, I’ll create new and delicious plant-based food products. My spirit motivates me to create something new, and I always approach my work passionately.

What were your most significant compromises or sacrifices to get where you are today?

Well, that's a difficult question, particularly in my sector. When I worked at my burger restaurant, my daughter was still young, and I had to make a significant sacrifice. I didn't get to spend much time with her because I worked long hours throughout the week and at weekends.

I couldn't return to the hospitality industry, such as working in restaurants. It was the biggest sacrifice I had to make for my family. I'm passionate about what I do, though, and don't see making sacrifices as negative.

How do you envision the future that you are helping to create?

What I saw at Vegan Summerfest was really encouraging. We’re heading in the right direction concerning plant-based foods, and many people recognise the necessity of this shift. This gives me hope for the future. That said, considering the pandemic, the war in Russia and Ukraine, and skyrocketing energy prices, I am uncertain about the future. Of course, these increasing prices significantly impact pricing for our product, but if people are willing to pay a little premium, I see a bright future for it.

Overall, with all the things that are going on, I am especially concerned about where the world is heading for my kids. It worries me greatly. Not so much for myself, but for my children.

If you could paint your ideal future, how would you do it?

If I were God and could create my world, people and animals would be equal. People wouldn't see themselves as above animals and wouldn't mistreat them, like what happens in slaughterhouses. It hurts me a lot to see animals being kicked around. Honestly, it makes me sick, makes me angry, and makes me want to cry, all at the same time. How can people be so cruel and indifferent to animal suffering? That’s why I’m so glad I took the step toward a plant-based diet and made it my mission to encourage people to take the step too and to open their eyes to the animal suffering that is associated with eating meat.

In my vision of the world, we would all be equal beings, finding a balance between all things and living in peace. We would also return to our roots and take more time preparing our food instead of using preservatives to make it last as long as possible. This is not good for our health; we must find a balance.

It's a difficult question to answer, but we must care about what we eat and how it affects our bodies and reassess the economic structures surrounding food. That's why Fred’s Mayo and other food producers are doing good things with food: to keep our bodies balanced.

Good nutrition is crucial because many diseases, such as cancer and diabetes, stem from poor dietary habits. A person's health starts in their gut, specifically their colon. Therefore, they cannot maintain good health if one does not eat well. It is essential to prioritise pure and natural foods and eat as close to nature as possible.

What advice would you give entrepreneurs who are just starting or want to start a business?

If you have a product or a passion for something and you see potential in that product, don't hesitate to pursue it. Start small, at home, and develop your idea. If it's a food product, test it and let people taste it. Write a business plan and take step-by-step actions to develop your product. Don't worry too much about the risks or consequences; focus on living with no regrets. However, be smart and gradual in your approach, and try to find the right partners and connect with like-minded people.

When I started my journey, I joined a startup lab, where I had to write a short business plan. If they saw potential, I could join the lab, and they supported me in writing a business plan and a financial plan for 18 months. I was in a group of 15 people with their ideas, visions, and passions. This experience gave me a lot of input and boosted my confidence. I strongly advise finding a similar support system.

Remember, the sky's the limit. If it doesn't work out, it doesn't work out, but at least you tried. On the other hand, if it does work out, you can achieve great success.

If you had one lasting message that could reach the whole world, what would it be?

The most important message is to be kind to people and animals and to try and eat more plant-based. Trust me! It’s good for you, for animals, and our precious planet.

Ten years ago, I used to think that plant-based diets were only for people trying to change the world. But now, if you try modern plant-based food alternatives, it’s easy to see we’ve really made a huge progress and figured out how to make these things taste fantastic. Sure, lots of people are (unfortunately) still used to eating huge chunks of meat with tiny portions of vegetables, but you can still have an incredible meal if you remove the meat.

Thanks so much for sharing a bit of your journey and enthusiasms with us. Your vegan mayonnaise sounds great— particularly your sauce Andalouse, if I may speak for myself— and I’ll be sure to look for it the next time I’m in Belgium. From all of us at Brighter Future, we wish you the greatest of fortune in your efforts to reduce animal product consumption at home and, perhaps, around the world.

If you would like to learn more about Fred and his company, visit www.fredsmayo.be.

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