There are conspiracies, and then there are mayonnaise conspiracies.
As reported by Bloomberg, vegan mayo company Hampton Creek in 2014 embarked on a campaign to buy back its own products, an attempt to make it appear popular and incentivize retailers to keep the product stocked. Citing unnamed sources, the news organization reported that the company paid contract employees to purchase its products at Kroger, Costco, Walmart, Target and Whole Foods locations across the US.
Hampton Creek confirmed it paid contractors to purchase its products to check them for quality, and that the program cost $77,000. But the Bloomberg story claims that e-mails, receipts and expense reports it obtained suggest hundreds of other purchases went unreported.
In response to the story, Hampton Creek CEO Josh Tetrick told Quartz those hundreds of other purchases were from contractors who bought Hampton Creek products to check on things other than quality assurance, including pricing and shelf positioning. Tetrick said the story characterized the program as “the massive mayo buyout of the century,” but that the numbers contradict that claim. Of the millions of jars Tetrick said Hampton Creek sold in 2014, a few hundred was in no way “massive,” he added.
Tetrick repeated what he told Bloomberg, that the $77,000 program amounted to less than one-tenth of 1% of Hampton Creek’s sales.
If the story laid out by Bloomberg turns out to be true, and the company actually did engage in a shady mass buyback of its products, it would shatter the rosy hue surrounding the San Francisco startup. Hampton Creek has been characterized as a trailblazer in the food tech world. The founders of several Silicon Valley food technology startups often speak glowingly about Hampton Creek and Tetrick, for trailblazing the path for new entrants in the foodie sphere.
In 2015, it was revealed that there was an effort by the egg industry to reduce the influence of the eggless mayo company, as high-level members of the American Egg Board, a USDA employee and an outside PR firm discussed over e-mail strategies for dealing with Hampton Creek’s plant-based mayonnaise substitute. The company in December 2015 claimed a big win after the Food and Drug Administration gave a stamp of approval for Hampton Creek to use the word “mayo” on its vegan mayonnaise product.