Alice Waters’ disciples are a varied bunch. There are the chefs opening their own restaurants following the organic and local ethos. There are the fresh food evangelists planting vegetable gardens on school grounds. And then there is Will Gaudet Jr., who hopes to bring hemp burgers to the people.
Hemp is a byproduct of growing marijuana. It has long been used to make rope, clothing and beauty products. Hemp seeds are widely available at health food stores. But, because it remains illegal to farm marijuana in the United States, Gaudet’s intention with his startup, Bay Roots, is twofold; while he wants to promote the virtues of hemp seeds as a non-meat, healthy protein source, he also hopes to educate the public about the virtues of hemp, which might in turn bring more people around to the idea of legalizing marijuana.
Gaudet, himself a product of Waters’ Edible Schoolyard at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Berkeley, called Waters nothing short of “a revolutionary,” speaking recently in the Edible Schoolyard, as chickens and ducks wandered freely nearby.
“At the time, I probably just wanted to play basketball,” he said, rather than learning how to grow food. “This program is why I’ve had such inspiration to eat healthy all these years. You get older and realize that people were trying to instill valuable things.”
Gaudet, 21, who grew up in the Berkeley Hills but moved with his parents to the Seattle area for high school, is the kind of guy who hugs everyone – including this reporter — upon first meeting. He has peace signs and pot leaves tattooed on one forearm, pot leaves on his socks, and a pot leaf decal on the back of his iPhone.
He is joined at Bay Roots by his girlfriend Alexa Dennis, 19, from Snohomish, Wash., whom he met a folk festival.
The business idea took root while the pair lived on Maui for six months. Gaudet, who had worked in the medical marijuana industry in Washington, and Dennis, who was in the healing arts, went to Hawaii to learn organic farming. Their lodging did not pan out, and they were picked up while hitchhiking by a Silicon Valley millionaire. He let them stay on his property for two weeks until they found a new situation, and, one night, Gaudet found himself educating the man, a vegetarian who had invested in food trucks and restaurants, about the virtues of hemp.
Gaudet’s mother has severe food allergies, and had been experimenting with hemp seed burgers for years. While they tasted good, they were more like sloppy joes than burgers, Gaudet said, as their one fault was that they didn’t bind well. The investor offered to fund their test market in Maui, so they developed a recipe with a local chef using his mother’s as a starting point, and began selling them to a local health food store.
The burgers have other ingredients too (onions, red peppers, brown rice, black beans, garlic, sun-dried tomatoes, quinoa, and lots of spices, including chipotle pepper — all of them organic) and have quite a zip to them. They are comparable to some of the better veggie burgers on the market (not all veggie burgers having been created equal).
While their daily run of 24 burgers continued to sell out in less than three hours in Maui, Gaudet flew to San Francisco to attend a hemp conference.
“I was intrigued by how big the industry is,” he said, “and came back so stoked.”
Meanwhile, the potential investor was less stoked about Gaudet’s legalization agenda that he planned to market along with the burgers.
The one thing they did agree on was that it was better for Gaudet to find his passion and fail, rather than work for a start-up he didn’t feel passionate about.
One night, Dennis said, “We don’t need a start-up guy. We can do this together,” and the idea for Bay Roots was born.
By the beginning of this year, they had the name and the website, and they launched a crowd-sourcing campaign on IndieGoGo that’s ending soon (donors to it can get hemp burgers as a thank you perk) to help them get started here in the Bay Area. They’re currently living with Gaudet’s aunt in Orinda, and use commercial kitchen space to make the burgers there.
The couple say they moved to California because it’s cheaper to source ingredients here – though their hemp seed supplier is in Canada – and they are closer to their target markets on the West Coast.
Once Bay Roots is up and running, the pair plan to put facts and figures about hemp on the packaging as part of their endeavor.
Both Gaudet and Dennis believe that the petro-chemical and pharmaceutical industries are to blame for the fact that marijuana remains illegal. When asked why hemp products are legal to sell while it is forbidden to grow them domestically, Gaudet said, “if the production of hemp was legal in America with no limitations, there are certain industries that could be threatened.”
Casey Rettig, a Special Agent with the Drug Enforcement Agency’s San Francisco office said that hemp products made from seeds that can’t germinate to produce marijuana are exempt from the Controlled Substances Act, which is why they can be sold legally.
Meanwhile, Gaudet and Dennis hope their campaign takes off in major way, and that hemp burgers become the next big thing.
And they have a few other lofty goals.
“I want Bay Roots to be in a position where it has a voice in the community,” said Gaudet. “We want it to be a brand that moms and families can really trust. We’ve seen with GMOs (genetically modified organisms) and the lies corporations are making, that people are realizing they can’t trust a lot of the old brands. We want to be a company that supplies healthy organic food from hemp.”
Added Dennis with a big smile, “We want to live on our own hemp farm and be the couple who legalized hemp.”