Friday, June 16, 2017 by Isabelle Z.
Three executives at the vegan food startup Hampton Creek were given their walking papers after it was revealed that they had been attempting to stage a coup to take control from the brand’s co-founder and give new investors a greater amount of power over the brand, which could put its focus on healthy food in jeopardy, according to reports.
Concerned employees tipped off higher-ups at Hampton Creek, who hired investigators to find out what the senior managers in question were up to. One incident uncovered in the investigation involved a senior manager who had emailed an investor to ask for a private meeting to talk about the company’s future governance. That meeting never happened. Although their takeover plans were ultimately unsuccessful, evidence was gathered, including discussions in which the executives talked about the new roles they were hoping to attain in the new company governance structure.
The fired employees were identified as Vice President of Research and Development Lee Chae, Chief Technology Officer Jim Flatt, and Vice President of Business Development Sofia Elizondo. While they have not been accused of illegal activity, the firm said in a statement that their plans “would have stripped our employees of the autonomy to direct our long-term mission.”
Hampton Creek is best known for its Just Mayo product, but they also sell vegan salad dressings, cookies, and cookie dough. The business raised an incredible $239 million in funding, far exceeding any other food startup in the current marketplace, and was valued at more than $1 billion, although funding efforts have stalled recently. The brand’s line of Just products is sold in more than 20,000 locations as well as universities, stadiums, schools and hospitals.
Co-founder and CEO Josh Tetrick told The Guardian that the changes to the company’s structure that the fired employees were planning would have forced Hampton Creek into accepting buyout offers or launching new products that were not in keeping with its green ideals.
“We don’t have time for these political games that I think are represented here and we need to get back to the business of building a healthy product,” he said. Officials told Food Dive that future expansion plans depended on Hampton Creek’s present corporate governance structure remaining intact.
This is not the first time that Hampton Creek has found itself at the center of controversy. The parent company of Hellmann’s Mayonnaise, Unilever, sued Hampton Creek for false advertising on the pretense that Hampton Creek’s wildly popular Just Mayo couldn’t be considered mayonnaise because it does not contain eggs. This lawsuit was unsuccessful, and Unilever eventually launched a product to rival Just Mayo.
In another incident, the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that the company had been targeted inappropriately by ads from the American Egg Board. The powerful lobby group commissioned pro-egg advertisements to show up next to search results for Just Mayo, which was called Beyond Eggs at the time, in hopes of hurting its sales. This was deemed to be an inappropriate use of checkoff funds, which the group receives to promote the commodity in general, not disparage their competition. The investigation revealed that the ads were part of a wider two-year campaign by the group in which they also attempted to convince Whole Foods to stop selling Hampton Creek products and even joked about putting out a “hit” on Tetrick.
The new firings come just a month after the departure of the firm’s human resources chief, chief operations officer, and chief financial officer and the resignation of their vice president of business affairs. They are also currently in the midst of a rebranding campaign that involves a new website that focuses on solving the global hunger problem using food science and plant proteins, which indicates that the brand has big plans for the future.