Brooklyn native Elizabeth Valleau developed her love of authentic food from her French heritage mother who loved to cook for her family and made everything from scratch.
It’s where Valleau, also fond of cooking, first recognized the virtues of home-made food. For instance, mayonnaise. When prepared fresh, it is a treat. To most Americans, though, it’s nothing more than a staple condiment taken for granted when whipping up a sandwich. In fact, it is the world’s number one-selling condiment.
Valleau has gone on from the family kitchen to build a distinguished career in design and marketing, with time on the side to play in a band, and currently is the lead creative director for Grey New York. But in the back of her mind, she says, she always hoped that someday someone would make mayo as good as her mom’s. Finally, in 2011 she quit waiting and decided to do it herself, partnering with chef Sam Mason to found Empire Mayonnaise Co.
Valleau wanted her mayo to register with consumers as healthy and environmentally correct. That means using local, cage-free, pasture-raised eggs as well as local and seasonal flavors. But here’s the kicker: She wanted it to be sexy, too. To reinforce that image of specialness, even decadence, the 15-strong product line is sold in small four-ounce jars which resemble elegant cosmetic creams more than just another gourmet food product. What’s more, that cachet is underlined by the company’s name itself. Besides being made in New York, the Empire state, the word conveys what Valleau calls a “stately elegance”. “Mayonnaise,’ she says, “is the highest form an egg can aspire to.”
The first year Empire was in business Valleau would leave her office at the close of business on Friday, speed to Empire’s 300 square-foot Brooklyn storefront kitchen, stay up all night with her small staff making and jarring mayo, and be off the next morning to their booth at Brooklyn’s then-burgeoning Smorgasburg food fair to sell the stuff over the weekend.
“The key to doing multiple things,” she says with a laugh, “is being an insomniac maniac.”
Not only did the Smorgasburg experience give Valleau a chance to figure out which flavors worked and didn’t, she also could watch how consumers responded to the brand and exchanged their own values with it. “A brand must talk to the consumer and vice-versa,” she says. “When challenged you can start to see your own idea differently.” In short, it’s not enough just to say you have brand values. You have to walk the talk.
Before long Empire’s mayo caught the attention of foodies, who spread its joys by word of mouth. This allowed Valleau and company to dig in and establish the brand without spending a dime on promotion. Positive press coverage followed, plus appearances on the Oprah Winfrey and Martha Stewart shows, and Empire was off.
Five years later Empire no longer does food fairs like by-now famed Smorgasburg. The plain fact is, preparing for them simply is too time-consuming. Moreover, the business has grown by leaps and bounds. Not only has Empire moved into wholesaling, the line now is carried by 300 stores on four continents. It sports everything from classic flavors like white truffle, roasted garlic and bacon to limited edition specialty flavors like lemon-ginger, for Mother’s Day, pink peppercorns (Valentine’s Day) and horseradish (Passover). All that, when Empire’s production still occupies its original Brooklyn space. Besides Valleau and chef Mason, there are just five fulltime employees and a couple of part-timers. (Sometimes Valleau’s five brothers pitch in.)
Valleau remains uncompromisingly committed to her brand’s values. Moreover, she believes that by sticking to brand values small outfits like Empire stand a better chance of establishing a strong bond with their customers and ultimately making a difference. But she’s also a realist and readily recognizes it’s the big players that truly can create big change. Sometimes, as she calls it, “magical change”. Presto. Last week later the Wall Street Journal ran a big story about the increased demand for slower-growing chickens. Seems giants like Starbucks and Whole Foods have caught on to the notion that customers may pay more for food raised in a more natural, humane way.
Valleau’s passion, however, is matched by her pragmatism. The universe of small players in the food industry has gotten so big, she admits, that it’s difficult to keep up with regulatory requirements and the like. With that in mind, soon Empire will have to scout for new kitchen digs. Efficiency, she goes on, is the key to making your target margin. It is why if you have a choice between staying grass roots or securing venture capital backing in order to expand, her advice is: “Take the money!” And what about the prospect of being acquired? In that case, she stresses, make darned sure the would-be acquisitor knows it’s buying brand values as well as products.
Empire won’t be her last shot, says Elizabeth Valleau. She’s hungry for more. She wants to leave a legacy and says she has it in her to build at least a couple more brands during her career. Spoken like a true entrepreneur.