Hampton Creek,a San Francisco-based food startup best known for its egg-free mayonnaise spread and cookie dough, has garnered attention at every step of its recent development. There were lengthy profiles in Mother Jones and Wired in 2013 and highly publicized investments from Bill Gates and Li Ka-Shing, followed by rave reviews of its Just Mayo products, and a lawsuit from Hellmann’s mayonnaise-maker Unilever.
Then came news of more rounds of funding and product distribution deals in 2015, not to mention the comings and goings of advisers, employees, and lobbyists attached to the company’s plan to disrupt the global food system.
“It’s happened so damn fast,” Josh Tetrick, the company’s 35-year-old CEO, told me back in October. “Ten months ago we were just rolling out, from a retail perspective, in Whole Foods. Now we’re everywhere.”
But as Business Insider reported yesterday (Aug. 6), former employees are claiming that the company’s fast success has come at the expense of its leaders’ integrity. Among other things, they (anonymously) allege that Hampton Creek executives “ignored science, “stretched the truth,” and “created an uncomfortable and unsafe work environment.”
It was an unsavory set of allegations against a company that’s been portrayed mostly favorably since its founding in 2011. When Quartz called Tetrick for a comment, he was eager to speak on the record, after refusing to do the same when Business Insider called before publishing its story. The reason he didn’t speak then, he says, is that when the news site revealed the details of its story to him, “things were so blatantly wrong” and “felt so divorced from the truth that [I decided] we were going to tell the truth somewhere else,” Tetrick says.
“Like, I haven’t always been the best CEO in everything that I’ve done, but we put multiple people from our company on the phone,” he says. This includes ex-employees whose more positive opinions, he says, were not reflected in the article.
The story surfaced allegations that the original Just Mayo formula was not developed in-house; that the company guaranteed a six-month shelf life for the product but didn’t do sufficient stability testing to make that claim; that lemon juice concentrate was deliberately mislabeled as “lemon juice” on product labels; that Tetrick had an affair with a female employee who then received undeserved promotions; and that employees witnessed Morgan Oliveira, now Hampton Creek’s communications director, trying to secretly swap pages of their employment contracts to retroactively change the severance agreements within.
“Most of it is so radically false that it’s startling,” Tetrick said on the phone yesterday. “There are certain things that have, like, kernels of light in them, but they’re so spun around that it’s difficult to determine the truth.” For example, the lemon juice discrepancy: “For the longest time, we thought we should label it ‘lemon juice’,” not knowing that FDA rules mandate labeling concentrates as such. “We should have known,” he says, “but it never came up. Never once. We’ve had our labels looked at, we’ve had our ingredients looked at.” When the problem was discovered, he says, he acted quickly to rectify it.
He did date another employee, he says—someone who is “extraordinary, unbelievably talented” and “hasn’t had a promotion in roughly two years.”
“Should I not date people at work? Of course, it was a mistake, and I won’t do it again.”
The contract swapping to alter severance packages without telling employees? That happened, too, and “it was no one’s fault but mine,” says Tetrick. “I, with my own dumb ego, made a mistake. We had new people coming on board, and I had folks who had no business writing up contracts writing up contracts. It was stupid. It’s just dumb. And it wasn’t their fault, it was my fault.”
“For some of the folks that we hired, not all, we had had a conversation about severance up front; for others it wasn’t even mentioned.” A few months later, he said, “I realized that we had made a mistake—that in all of the contracts, we had everywhere from three to nine months severance. Whether you were 20 years old, 18 years old, no matter what your position, you had an executive-level severance package. Now, my screw up [was that] instead of doing what I should have done”—which was meet with people to say “can we change this to something more reasonable?”—”without even thinking, I said to someone, can you change them? That was dumb of me, right? Flat-out dumb. This was over two and a half years ago.”
Tetrick says that Oliveira wasn’t involved, that several employees confronted him right after it happened and told him they felt uncomfortable about it, and that, as Business Insider reports, he then held a team meeting to apologize. “I have not heard about that for the last two and a half years. We all moved on,” he says.
More of Tetrick’s rebuttals can be found on Medium, where he published a post late last night—just one day after Hampton Creek won a “Technology Pioneer” award from the World Economic Forum; previous recipients of the prize include Google, Kickstarter, and Dropbox.
“Look, growing a company is hard,” says Tetrick, no stranger to a culture where moving fast and breaking things is the norm. “Go to any startup, live there for a month, talk to a few people who are no longer with the company, and some version of” the same story will come out, he says. “It’s called life.”