Plant-based alternative foods company Hampton Creek, which has captured $120 million in venture capital funding, engaged in a large-scale undercover operation in which employees were instructed to buy back its mayo products to boost sales figures, reported Bloomberg at the end of last week.
Five former Hampton Creek employees informed Bloomberg that roughly eight months before the company closed a $90 million Series C funding round, the company purchased enormous quantities of its product from supermarkets. The employees also indicated that contractors were instructed to call supermarket managers using false identities to inquire about the product and drive up demand.
In an email to these contractors, Hampton Creek’s then director of corporate partnership Caroline Love wrote: “We need you in Safeway buying Just Mayo and our new flavored mayos. And we’re going to pay you for this exciting new project! Below is the list of stores that have been assigned to you…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, and spread the word to customers that Just Mayo is their new preferred brand. :)”
Hampton Creek CEO Joshua Tetrick claims the aim behind the buyback project was to perform quality assurance. He posted a response on Hampton Creek’s website detailing a program aimed at collecting data about the product such as its look, smell, label, shelf positioning and more. He says this buyback represented $77k in spending, less than the company spent on snacks, and representing 0.12% of sales.
Bloomberg says the database Tetrick provided of these purchases — almost 3,900 entries in 15 states from March 2014 to January 2015 — does not match with theirs in scale or timing.
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“When we triangulated the documents and all the receipts and records we had, none of the purchases we found were in the database,” said Olivia Zaleski, the Bloomberg reporter breaking this story, in an interview on Bloomberg TV. “We found no connection there and these are clearly two separate programs.”
The Bloomberg article continues: “Five former Hampton Creek contractors and two ex-senior staff members say the buyback assignments were separate from quality checks at stores. The ex-contractors say in most cases they were told to simply buy up jars at nearby stores and were free to consume or discard them—not look for quality issues, as the company says.”
CNBC reporters were also confused when in a follow-up interview Tetrick said part of the reason for hiring contractors was to “get the stores excited,” which they thought didn’t fit with the quality assurance program.
Tetrick responded that the scheme had next-to-no impact on sales and that the purchases were all expensed, but it’s still unclear whether the purchases, through the quality assurance program or other, were booked as revenues.
Marc Andreessen of Andreessen Horowitz, an investor in Hampton Creek, tweeted: “No comment on specific companies, but make no mistake: Buying your own product to inflate your reported revenue is fraud.” This tweet was followed by support for the startup: “To be clear, @joshtetrick has clarified that’s not what Hampton Creek was doing” with a link to Tetrick’s response.
Dan Primark, the renowned private equity reporter for Fortune magazine, shifted the conversation a bit towards the suitability of food companies being treated like tech startups by VCs.
“And while I’m out on this limb, maybe this is a sign that CPG companies shouldn’t be funded with the same growth expectations as tech startups…” he wrote in Friday’s Term Sheet.
Hampton Creek is currently raising a $200 million round at a $1 billion valuation, according to media reports in May. Its last round was a $90 million Series C, which was led by VC heavyweights Horizons Ventures out of Hong Kong, and Khosla Ventures.
Hampton Creek had not yet responded to requests for comment when this article went to press.
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