Friday, September 23, 2016
How Hampton Creek sold the Fake-Mayo miracle
Except, the e-mail said, that was wrong. Hampton Creek had hired a consulting firm, Lux Research in Boston, to do a full audit of the environmental impact of its products. Lux found that, as a colleague of Elizondo’s said in a later e-mail, “the numbers look pretty different to the ones we’ve previously been using.” Lux had examined the footprint of all of Hampton Creek’s ingredients, not only the egg and dairy replacements. Employees were told to trash the old numbers and start limiting claims to individual ingredients. “You can say something like: ‘Pea protein saves 1.3 gallons of water for every jar of 30 oz Just Mayo,’ ” Elizondo wrote.
Hampton Creek never publicly admitted its numbers were wrong. It scrubbed its site of sustainability claims, and the Cookie Calculator vanished. Such quiet backpedaling might be forgivable at many young companies—overeager math isn’t unheard of in Silicon Valley. But at Hampton Creek, it fits a pattern of mistaken or exaggerated claims that may prove to be deliberately deceptive.
In August the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and the Justice Department launched probes of Hampton Creek for possible securities violations and criminal fraud. The investigation follows an Aug. 4 Bloomberg article that revealed the company deployed a national network of contractors to secretly buy back Just Mayo from grocery store shelves. Hampton Creek denies any wrongdoing.
...Every entrepreneur has a story. Tetrick’s was eggs. In 2011 his company—essentially just him and a vegan chef, operating out of Los Angeles—landed $500,000 in seed funding from Khosla Ventures to develop a plant-based substitute for chicken eggs. His pitch: He would liberate billions of hens from the fetid misery of overstuffed cages—and in the process save water and grain and cut carbon pollution. Profane, charismatic, and built like the linebacker he once was, Tetrick became a tenacious evangelist for eliminating animal protein from the world’s diet. (It’s “Just” Mayo as in “righteous,” not “simply.”) At the same time, he billed Hampton Creek as more than a food company. What it was learning in the lab and through computational analysis about plant-based proteins would make it a sustainable-food power, not just a company with a handful of niche products.