San Francisco vegan food startup Hampton Creek fired three top employees after learning of an alleged coup attempt, company representatives announced. The reportedly secret effort to give new investors more power in the Silicon Valley unicorn didn’t fly with its CEO and controlling shareholder Josh Tetrick, a sometimes controversial leader who’s had egg on his face during past scandals.
“This morning, our co-founder and CEO Josh Tetrick, shared the sad news with our team that three senior managers have been terminated for attempting to change our company’s corporate governance,” representatives wrote in a statement.
Known for vegan salad dressings, cookie dough, and condiments like “Just Mayo,” Hampton Creek was an early venture capital darling. It’s raised $239 million in funding at a valuation of more than $1 billion from the likes of Khosla Ventures and Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund.
But recent funding efforts have been less successful, and last month the company fired its chiefs of finance, operations, and HR. It’s now parted ways with three more senior staff members — Chief Technology Officer, V.P. of research and development, and V.P. of business development — over their alleged coup.
After hearing from “concerned employees,” Hampton Creek hired outside investigators who “uncovered evidence of the senior managers’ intentions” although their plans “never materialized.” That evidence allegedly includes employees’ discussion of the new roles they hoped for within the altered company governance structure.
The leadership shakeup might not be a roadblock for Hampton Creek, but it’s definitely a bump, and just the latest of many. As the vegan food company gained popularity in 2014 thanks, in part, to an endorsement from celebrity food person Andrew Zimmern, Unilever, which owns Hellmann's Mayonnaisse, unsuccessfully sued Hampton Creek for “false advertising.” Just Mayo wasn’t mayonnaise because it didn’t have eggs, Unilever’s lawyers attempted to argue.
Then it emerged last year that Hampton Creek had encouraged employees to buy up the company’s product at supermarkets, which critics claimed was an attempt to fake a sense of demand for Just Mayo. The company maintained the “buybacks” were for quality control purposes. As in the scuffle with Unilever, Hampton Creek emerged mostly unscathed: The Justice Department and Securities and Exchange Commission launched an investigation, which turned up no wrongdoing according to Hampton Creek.