In the years 1994-2002, I pivoted my award-winning food marketing company from soyfoods to hempseed. Introduced the first perishable and frozen hemp foods in 1994, sold coast-to-coast in the U.S. and Canada. They were called HempRella cheese alternative and the vegan Hempeh Burger. Then in 1996 I was the first to market a significant new development, shelled hempseed which I branded as HempNut. Imagine the difference between eating whole sunflower seeds or peanuts, and shelled. It’s that level of difference; it was a game-changer of monumental importance.
Naturally, it attracted competitors like bees to honey but I was years ahead of today’s companies. It hadn’t been named or branded yet, and the first one in gets the best name: “Hemp Nut.” The Germans called it peeled hempseed, geschälte Hanfsamen. It was graines de chanvre décorticées in French, and semi di canapa decorticati in Italian. Because FDA would always require a “common and usual” descriptor for it, such as hulled hempseed or shelled hempseed, “Hemp Nut” could never be used without it thus could only ever be a brand. Before Hemp Nut, those two words hadn’t before been joined and coined, especially for the shelled seed of the Cannabis (hemp) plant. I later became known as The Hemp Nut, my passion has often been used to explain my nuttiness for hemp, and not always complimentarily. By whom? Small-minded people. Before there was “Hemp Hearts,” there was “Hemp Nut” and was so popular two hemp associations demanded the trademark to it or they would oppose it for being a “generic” term.
Back then those people were skeptical about the seed becoming a legitimate commercial food, their cognitive dissonance was that hemp was only for fiber. They saw hemp foods as just another widget, bound by the stale rules of old-school business and even consciousness, and insisted I join them. But I had a bigger vision informed by years of food development and marketing, and saw it as not just another product but as a way to create positive social change in the Prohibition of Hemp and then Cannabis, by Normalizing it like I had done with tofu, Americanized products in familiar forms.
Rella Good Cheese Company
Having been in the food production and marketing business since 1980, I studied marketing for five years at University while also running a fast-growing Inc. 500 (1993) food marketing company. Named a “leading food industry innovator” in 1986 and an inveterate Brander, I sold “America’s most-hated food” (tofu) and gave thousands across the country their first happy taste during the Reagan ‘80s, growing 950% in five years by making it in the familiar American cheddar, jack, and mozzarella style cheeses, block and sliced. Trader Joe’s was a large customer for years, and one-third of our sales were in Canadian supermarkets.
Retired from hand production of tofu products after six years of the (literal) grind, in 1986 I outsourced all but my core competencies in marketing and product development. This business model, unique at the time, was that my company marketed my own co-packed foods which I had custom-made by another company, sold using our established food industry brokers and distributors. Run for years out of a spare bedroom, I did that until a competitor bought the business in 2001 for $3.7 million.
Flush with cash and free time then, I was looking forward to riding the wave of momentum over the previous 21 years to make hemp foods even bigger, faster. Instead, I retired to Amsterdam when the hemp food market died because a hemp fiber group with no skin in the game sued DEA for legalizing 98% of the industry, and I walked away from the $2.5 million and years of work I invested. The epic betrayal collapsed the market for 2½ years until a favorable Ninth Circuit court decision in 2004. The PR stunt “HIA v DEA” almost killed Canadian hemp with it, all over a lie. Who did it? Those same small-minded people.
They cleared the cognitive dissonance hurdle; everyone now knew about hemp foods. But instead of hemp foods standing on their own merits by quickly dispelling everyone’s first question “will this get me high?,” that court decision turned the conversation on hemp foods back to THC. Funny how suing to be allowed an unlimited amount of undisclosed THC in your foods makes people think there’s undisclosed THC in your foods. Too many lawyers, not enough common sense. And with today’s “medibles,” marijuana edibles which outsell hemp foods 100 to 1, the conversation is even harder.
But back then, we managed the risk with our “zero THC” campaign. “Zero THC” was, since all our hemp was imported, the U.S. Customs standard “USCL Method F0-03” (“Qualitative Identification and Confirmation of Delta-9 Tetrahydrocannabinol In Complex Mixtures and Matrices by Capillary Gas Chromatography – Mass Spectrometry” issued 08/00). This protocol had a cut-off of 1 ppm delta-9 THC. The hemp fiber group, which desperately wanted my HempNut trademark at the time, said there was “no zero in nature” thus my “zero THC” policy was bogus. Yet a few years later its members adopted the same narrative of “no THC in their foods,” and the same group even later promoted a “0.0% THC” hemp seed!
However, for them at that time the cognitive dissonance of “hempseed foods are zero THC” was too much to overcome. Believe me, I tried. Despite having our products in thousands of stores across the U.S. and Canada for years we never had a load detained and never a customer complaint and never any regulatory or legal action against us for THC or anything else. It was proof the policy worked, DEA later said so in court and FDA never bothered us.
And it was the best possible outcome: sales were ramping up like a hockey stick and no one sued even though we had the deep pockets. We were driving the infant hemp food far, fast. No doubt soap and fiber people didn’t see it the same way an experienced food marketing pro did, but that was no reason to “kill hemp foods in order to save it.” They did my envious competitors’ bidding, desperate to slow us down in any way possible even if it meant first wiping out the nascent hemp food market to do so. They did, and the hemp food industry would take many years to recover.
“Zero THC” was easy to meet with secondary foods like the cheese, burger, cookies, and bar. It was easy to achieve even with HempNut. The hardest product to keep clean was Hempseed Oil, but although I thought I found the best source, after a few years of business it turned out to be a bit dodgy. Starting many years before the hemp era we frequently imported and exported foods, and had a $2 million Customs Bond. In hundreds of shipments, our products never failed Customs inspection in any country, let alone due to THC. We never even got one complaint about a failed drug test!
To make our “zero THC” policy clear to consumers and the trade we put a graphic of “THC” with a slash through it on the package. It worked, backed with THC tests on every batch of products we answered every potential consumers’ first question silently, simply, and elegantly.
Was I anti THC? Oh hell no, years of my Hemp Salons, with a bong kept packed in our suite at the trade show hotel with munchies and live acoustic music belies that. Plus five years straight (but not “straight”) at the Cannabis Cup in Amsterdam. Some of my best friends I met there by giving away free slices of HempRella pizzas at 4:20 every afternoon in the Pax Partyhouse.
Starting in 1994 I was trying to leverage hemp foods for a bigger, more important role in society than just being another soybean or flaxseed, using the marketing tools I had been crafting over 14 years. Feed the consciousness of reason as well as their bellies, for the purpose of plant justice; the end of Cannabis Prohibition, worldwide.
It was a manifestation of my “Business = Activism” ethos that I had since the early tofu days. I intentionally trained my first tofu competitor in 1980, Wildwood Natural Foods, in order to progress the vegetarian soyfoods movement. Knowledge hoarded is knowledge wasted. It’s my fatal flaw; sentimentality + idealism. I started the Hemp Food Association and the Food and Oil Committee at HIA specifically to help competing food companies entering the space to make sure they were aware of Best Practices; a public scandal for any hemp food product was a scandal for us all in this infant industry.
The Aikido of Marketing
Anyway, simply because of Prohibition, which every thinking person agrees has been an utter and complete failure, we had that rare opportunity to use “marketing aikido” to turn society’s 60 years of failed policy to our advantage, using hemp foods.
I saw hemp foods and especially HempNut as an opportunity to leverage the stigma to our benefit, to contrast a professional and delicious superfood against the utter foolishness of hemp prohibition. That’s why our first labels had a large neon-green hemp leaf and the word HEMP in big letters, sitting as a silent billboard for the normalization of Cannabis on thousands of store shelves. “Barely Legal” and “Jamaica Jack flavor” were on the front label, and we had a “First One’s Free” trade promotion, flipping the stigma. Our back labels disclosed we used a portion of their purchase to support NORML. On the Roseanne Show on CBS-TV, as I added it I said “parsley, not to be confused with hemp.” We ran full-page color ads nationally for Hickory Smoked HempRella with the headline on a tie-dye background “When We Introduced A Hemp Cheese They Said We Must Be Smoking Something. We Are Now.” “Hemp Food: As legal as Coca-Cola®, as American as Apple Pie.” An established professional food company with a reputation for innovation can get away with that, the fear that we’re “a bunch of hippies making food in our garage” is the burden a start-up would face.
HempNut: the Soybean of the New Millennium
Sure, HempNut was a new food, like açai or spirulina, which I watched in their early years of introduction. The small-minded people saw it like that. But quick and widespread diffusion of a new food is very difficult to accomplish, although highly rewarding for many if it happens.
“The greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add a useful plant to its culture.” — Thomas Jefferson
I had been passionately working on diffusion of new vegan foods since 1980, making American-style foods out of tofu, non-dairy forms of ice cream, milk, yogurt, cottage cheese, deli sandwich spreads, hummus, burgers, and the like. That’s why I introduced HempNut bar, cheese, veggie burger, corn chips, and the all-American favorite: chocolate chip cookies. Snacks that leave pieces of shell in your teeth, are rancid or taste “off” are not helpful for diffusion. My goal was to disrupt 15% of the U.S. food soya industry; that would give us about 1 million acres of seed grown.
The hardest part of food marketing is distribution, it’s tightly controlled. But within months I was able to plug these new hemp foods into my existing sales and distribution network in the U.S. and Canada, and get them into thousands of supermarkets and natural food stores, and foodservice. Not one slotting fee or bribe was paid. With over 100 distributors and brokers, it was the network purchased from me for millions in 2001, and became the model adopted by all the hemp seed companies copying me.
A Thing Isn’t A Thing Until It’s A Thing
When the Tofutti phenomenon hit in 1983, it was huge. Suddenly everybody in New York City, and then the whole country, wanted this new nondairy ice cream made with tofu. Tofutti did the heavy lifting for all of us in the soyfoods industry, most tofu companies benefitted by selling their version (mine was “LeTofu”), and by popularizing and normalizing the Americanization of tofu in the U.S. I sold LeTofu in many different formats for years, as far away as Japan and Australia. Tofutti (TOFU) even went public.
People don’t know a thing is A Thing until they know it’s A Thing. Like the color blue before it had a name, or the bong on your bedroom shelf to your mom, if we don’t know something is a Thing we can’t see and thus have no interest in it. Therefore the first thing Tofutti had to do is tell people “awesome nondairy tofu ice cream” is A Thing.
Usually the first reaction is cognitive dissonance, because “tofu ice cream.” That’s a powerful stage for the marketer, when you overcome their cognitive dissonance. You can create new product/brand evangelists if you execute this stage well. The cognitive dissonance of “hemp food” was our hurdle, everyone knew about fiber hemp, grandpa’s hemp. But the seed, “isn’t that for birds?”
That was what had to happen first, get people to realize hemp foods are A Thing. Then the inevitable and reasonable first question: “will I get high or fail a drug test?” After those two are answered most people are open to trying the product. This is where HempNut products shined, they were very, very good. Seriously, the best blue corn chip on the store shelf, the best veggie burger even carnivores loved it. The only hemp cheese made, but at least it melted and tasted like cheese and the Hickory Smoked was one of the best flavors of any cheese alternative, even a few pizza shops used it. The bars were killer, and the cookies helped keep a California Green Party senate campaign fed. Willie Nelson ordered HempNut via fax from on the road, to be shipped ahead. HempNut won the first three hemp industry awards for food and product innovation, in 1997 and two in 1998. I literally wrote the book on hempseed as food… twice.
Hempevangelists Say Hallelujah
Once we explained the product to them, most consumers got very excited and many later became evangelistic about hemp with anyone who would listen. I noticed it at demos and shows; someone has it explained to them (“food from the hemp seed, sorry no THC”), they try and like it, then call their friends over to try it, all excited. That reaction was very different than what we saw with tofu products, even delicious ones in familiar American forms.
We always gave them trifold brochures, coupons, recipes, and the like. We tried to leverage that evangelism with a program to allow people to fund their activism in their town by selling HempNut foods, with our marketing support (see display at right). Eventually, we spent over $230,000 on a successful and creative national advertising and PR campaign; millions of impressions on network TV and food magazines, thousands of local newspapers and dozens of radio shows. Today’s hemp food industry didn’t just happen, didn’t just spring up fully formed from the ground. It took vision and intention and skill and professionals… and money. Lots of it.
I was trying to re-create that Tofutti phenomenon with hemp foods. Even literally: many people I’ve advised many times to sell a hemp ice cream in New York City to the shops with soft-serve machines, and only in NYC for the first 12 months. Install machines in high-traffic areas, sell frozen bars at public gatherings and on the street. Advertise and promote efficiently in the City, craft an authentic genesis story like Tofutti had with founder David Mintz. Even use hemp essential oil as an ingredient so it tastes like a grow room in flower, and color it green with spirulina.
I knew if we could get people to accept, buy, and eat hemp foods, overcoming what I call the Proximity Effect, then the hemp food segment would succeed. Buying a hemp shirt, shampoo, or wallet is a fairly benign risk interaction for a consumer. But food was more of a concern to people, with medicine even more so. We needed to successfully move up the Proximity Effect pyramid to get them to try a hemp food.
In order to get people to want to legalize and accept Cannabis as a medicine, they had to first accept it as a non-stony food. The lower stages of the pyramid were already covered, we needed to go higher. Enter hemp food, the “non-stony food made from the hemp plant’s seed, a delicious superfood high in nutritious, good in any recipe.”
While the marijuana-friendly folks were easy to get to try it despite not getting them high, they were not even close to the primary market for hemp foods, the mass-market was; Ma and Pa Kettle and their grandchildren. I was aiming for nothing less than complete acceptance by the masses of hemp foods, then hemp legalization, and eventually Cannabis legalization itself. Descheduling, GRAS status, major market penetration. Eventually, we did get hemp legality from the 2018 Farm Bill, GRAS status from FDA the same year, and hemp foods became hemp’s first billion-dollar industry, 90% of Canadian hemp today.
Having HEMP in big letters with a neon-green leaf on thousands of store shelves and in the business and food pages of thousands of newspapers plus TV helped to de-stigmatize Cannabis in the eyes of voters, who, two years later, passed Prop. 215 in California, the first initiative legalizing medical marijuana, a watershed event for the industry. Hemp (and thus CBD) is the sharp tip of the Cannabis legalization spear.
This is how you sell not just a product, but social change. Normalizing Cannabis, one bite at a time.