Even with “just” in its name, Hampton Creek’s methods for achieving expedited success with its egg-less mayonnaise brand Just Mayo may not all have been fair and honest.
An investigation by Bloomberg published last Thursday revealed the brand used undercover contract workers, called Creekers, to buy dozens of jars at each store and call stores pretending to be customers.
“We don’t market our product to tree-hugging liberals in San Francisco,” Hampton Creek Chief Executive Officer Josh Tetrick told The Washington Post in 2014. “… We built the company to try to really penetrate the places where better-for-you food hasn’t gone before.” Broadening its market share, increasing shelf-space, and attracting investment are motives that come through emails from Hampton Creek leaders to contractors.
Initial sales were emphasized in one April 2014 email to Creekers from Caroline Love, Hampton Creek’s former director of corporate partnership and current vice president of mission. “The most important next step with Safeway is huge sales out of the gate,” she wrote. “This will ensure we stay on the shelf to put an end to Hellmann’s factory-farmed egg mayo, and spread the word to customers that Just Mayo is their new preferred brand. :)”
Contractors began their jobs clad in the Just Mayo hats and shirts to hold tastings in stores, five former workers told Bloomberg, but they dropped their uniforms in 2014 when they were asked to join a “special project.”
“Make sure you’re not wearing your HC gear when you go into Safeway. This is an undercover project,” Love wrote to a contractor in 2014, according to Bloomberg.
Creekers were told to buy mayonnaise and do whatever they wanted with it: use it, give it away, or throw it out. “And we’re going to pay you for this exciting new project!” Love wrote to Creekers. “Below is the list of stores that have been assigned to you.”
The five former Creekers said they purchased dozens of jars per store, sometimes visiting over a dozen stores in a week. This, they say, happened all over the country.
After purchasing jars, contractors were told to call stores to ask about “this new mayonnaise,” and then say “I think it’s called Just Mayo …,” posing as school teachers or caterers. “Strong demand for a product typically prompts retailers to order more and stock it in additional stores,” Olivia Zaleski, who was involved in the investigation, reports.
Bloomberg spoke to Tetrick during the examination and was told the primary purpose of the buyout was quality control and quality assurance. He even gave them access to the company’s quality assurance database as proof.
“These folks did an awesome job for us, primarily in helping us improve our quality,” Love says in a statement provided by Hampton Creek to Bloomberg. “They were our eyes and ears on the ground. I’m proud of what we did and how we continue to do it.”
“We’re talking about .12 percent of our sales, about $77,000 that had no impact on our sales at all … We spent more on snacks this year than we spent on the entirety of the program. It’s made us a better company. I couldn’t be more proud of it.” Tetrick told CNBC in an interview.
However, Bloomberg did not find the purchases on their receipts and records in the database, showing that the “special project” was independent from the quality assurance program.
Additionally, companies normally conduct quality control before the product leaves the factory, Kurt Jetta, CEO and founder of the retail and consumer data company TABS Analytics, told Bloomberg. They usually choose one item per batch, Zaleski said in an interview.
In the future, “I would hope they engage in practices that are more transparent and don’t put revenue on their books that isn’t real revenue,” Zaleski said, speaking of Hampton Creek.
The company was also accused of misleading customers last year when the FDA wrote a letter to Hampton Creek saying the company cannot use the word “Mayo” because it does not fulfill the requirements of the 1957 definition.
The agency and the company compromised by having Hampton Creek alter its labeling to clearly display that no eggs are used in the product.