The Mayo Clinic

One afternoon in July, executives at Unilever’s corporate headquarters in Englewood Cliffs, N.J., had decided it was the right time to serve up, of all things, Thanksgiving dinner. Inside the test kitchen next to a conference room, about half a dozen women in aprons and tie-back hats hurried about a long table, laying out the victuals they’d cooked especially for the occasion. The feel was festive, right down to the pine cone-and-pumpkin centerpieces on the tabletop-but the purpose was pure business. Everything on the menu was made, to a greater or lesser degree, with mayonnaise. Hellmann’s mayonnaise.

That wasn’t just true for the obvious dishes like the mashed potatoes. A nearby tray of savory muffins, for instance, owed its smooth consistency and delicate texture to a cup of Hellmann’s. Even the turkey was made “super moist” with a generous rubbing of mayonnaise under and over the bird’s skin.

Mayonnaise…in muffins? Okay, so it’s not exactly the sort of thing they teach in culinary school, but if your goal is expanding market share, it’s not a bad recipe. According to Jamey Fish, Unilever senior brand manager, the dinner was a real-world experiment in expanding mayo’s uses — that is, of course, assuming consumers go for the ideas.

Hellmann’s (which sells under the name “Best Foods Mayonnaise” west of the Rockies) is the king of the mayonnaises. The $1.3 billion category, though considered mature, has been enjoying the vim of youth lately. Thanks to the recessionary rise of eating at home and brown-bagging lunches for the office, mayo is no longer the staid standby in the back of the kitchen cupboard. And so sales growth — any sales growth — is welcome news for the folks who work in Hellmann’s nondescript office park in Englewood Cliffs. But Fish’s efforts raise some hard questions, among them: As the recession lifts, will mayo’s popularity fade once more? Will vigorous marketing be enough to overcome the market’s vicissitudes? And, in these health-conscious times, is it even possible to overcome the fact that mayonnaise is among the fattiest foods on the market?

Fish seems unfazed by these challenges, and in fact welcomes the chance to steer a product he likens — not without affection — to a battleship. “This is a mature, large brand that’s been around for a while,” he says. “Growing it really takes a lot, [but] I really wanted to be a part of that.”

Already in Your Pantry
Fish brings a background that’s probably a boon for a century-old brand. He’s been at Unilever eight years, part of which he spent on the Lawry’s seasonings division (now divested), and it surely can’t hurt that he was once a fireworks designer. (“If you don’t get it right,” he says, “the audience doesn’t forget.”)

But dazzling Americans with pyrotechnics is a bit easier than thrilling them with mayonnaise. Nonetheless, Fish is confident he can get fat-conscious, weight-obsessed Americans to eat more of the stuff. He plans to do that through a combination of creating more uses for the condiment and through the nostalgia sell — appealing to consumers who long to recreate the good-old days of meat and potatoes and other so-called “real food.”

On that latter point, he may well find traction, given the list of unpronounceable ingredients that pack most food products nowadays. “Remember,” Fish says, “Hellmann’s has always been made with eggs, oil and vinegar.” It’s the sort of message that purists would appreciate — and there seem to be a growing number of those. They’re the sort who devour books by culinary journalist Michael Pollan, and who thrust Julia Child’s half-century-old Mastering the Art of French Cooking back into best seller status in the wake of the film Julie & Julia.