According to reports, Hampton Creek sent undercover shoppers to buy its own products.
If you imagine that the condiment business is a sleepy one, Hampton Creek is about to prove you wrong. The eggless vegan mayo company has been accused of running a mass mayo-buying operation in order to boost sales and woo investors.
The condiment company, which was founded by Josh Tetrick, received $90 million in investments in 2014, many of which were from Silicon Valley firms looking to get a chunk of change from the company's most popular product: Just Mayo. Within the first few years of operation, Just Mayo could be found on the shelves of the country's most prominent grocery chains, including Walmart and Kroger, which made it all the more appealing to potential investors.
However, as Bloomberg reported this week, a condiment conspiracy could have been behind the product's early success during its months of funding. Five former Just Mayo employees came forward with hundreds of expense reports, emails, and receipts that showed a strategic buyback of the brand's own product to make it appear more popular to consumers. Using a small army of contractors, the brand sent undercover shoppers to grocery stores around the country to buy out product and request higher orders.
In one released email, Hampton Creek's former director of corporate partnership, Caroline Love, writes to one of the contract workers—whom the company nicknamed Creekers—with the company's request to strategically buyout the product. "We need you in Safeway buying Just Mayo and our new flavored mayos," Love writes. "The most important next step with Safeway is huge sales out of the gate. This will ensure we stay on the shelf to put an end to Hellmann's factory-farmed egg mayo."
Despite what this email suggests, Tetrick insists that the purpose of the Just Mayo buyouts was to check for quality control and the general condition and positioning of the vegan mayo on store shelves. However, Melanie Myers, who worked on the corporate partnerships team for the company admits the motivation behind the program was a combination of things, saying: "we also thought that it might give us a little momentum out of the gate."
To counteract these accusations, Tetrick provided Bloomberg with 15 emails he exchanged with contractors, which referenced checking for quality control alone. The founder also notes that the $77,000 spent on the buyback program accounted for just 0.12 percent of the company's sales that year—a negligible amount in the grander scheme of things.
Still, conspiracy theorists aren't buying this, suggesting that a large portion of purchases by Creekers have gone unreported. While the buyout period officially ended in 2014, multiple contractors say their work continued into 2015, following verbal instructions rather than emailed ones.