Garrett Popcorn is suing a former employee for stealing trade secrets

There’s more to popcorn than meets the eye.
There’s more to popcorn than meets the eye.
Image: Reuters/Benoit Tessier
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Popcorn has long been a movie theater staple, but now the tasty treat is the star of its own dramatic spectacle—a legal thriller.

On April 22, Garrett Popcorn—included in Oprah’s Favorite Things in 2010—sued a former employee for allegedly stealing trade secrets, including proprietary “secret popcorn recipes.” In a federal court filing in the Northern District of Illinois, the snack-maker, formally known as CaramelCrisp, contends that its former director of research and development, Aisha Putnam, downloaded more than 5,000 documents before her departure, in violation of non-competition and confidentiality agreements she signed when joining the company in 2014.

Putnam was fired in March, the complaint states. CaramelCrisp alleges that in the days before her dismissal, she copied top-secret company files that are kept secure and seen by very few employees. “The highly confidential trade secret recipes for CaramelCrisp’s various formulas, processes and popcorn products are stored on a secure drive that requires a biometrics thumbprint to access. Only three individuals had access to the information on this drive,” according to the filing.

A forensic examination of Putnam’s work computer also revealed that she sent emails to her personal account from work with the subject heading “documents Garrett,” the company says.  The emails contained 43 attachments with information about recipes, batch pricing, product weights, production processes, development and distribution agreements, supplier information, customer service reports and market research, among other things, all of which were confidential.

According to the complaint, Putnam’s allegedly improper actions “would be severely detrimental to CaramelCrisp’s business.” Release of these popcorn formulas, processes, and recipes “would cause irreparable harm to CaramelCrisp because once it has been shared there is no way to ‘undo’ the disclosure.”

Putnam hasn’t yet answered the legal complaint,  the Chicago Tribune reports, so her side of the story remains a secret for now. The case against her is interesting, however, as it highlights the fragility of “stringent security measures” that companies take to maintain their trade secrets, and shows that employers are extremely vulnerable to potential theft and sabotage, relying as they do on employee compliance. As CaramelCrisp points out in its filing, “confidential, proprietary, and trade secret information derives independent economic value from not being generally known to, and not being readily ascertainable… by another person who could obtain economic value from the disclosure or use of the information.”

In a perhaps higher-stakes example of employer vulnerability, the US Department of Justice on April 23 announced that it had indicted a former GE employee and his business associate in China, charging them with economic espionage and conspiring to sell the company’s turbine technology trade secrets to Chinese companies. Xiaoqing Zheng, a former GE engineer in New York, is accused of using his access to the company’s electronic files to provide his Chinese partner, Zhaoxi Zhang, with design models, engineering drawings, configuration files, and material specifications associated with GE gas and steam turbines.

Grab the popcorn.