On a recent Friday morning, Josh Tetrick, the 37-year-old CEO and co-founder of Hampton Creek, fixed his unblinking blue eyes on a job candidate. The pair was sitting at a workstation near the entrance to the company’s warehouselike San Francisco headquarters, where Tetrick frequently holds meetings in plain view of the company’s more than 130 employees. Around Tetrick—a muscular ex-linebacker in jeans and a T-shirt—was even more Tetrick: a poster of him watching Bill Gates eat a muffin, a framed photograph of him with a golden retriever, an employee’s T-shirt emblazoned with “What would you attempt if you knew you could not fail?”—one of Tetrick’s many slogans. (Others include “What would it look like if we just started over?” and “Be gorilla.”)
The interviewee, who was applying for a mid-level IT job, started listing his qualifications, but Tetrick seemed more interested in talking about the company’s mission—launching into what he promised was a “non-consumer-friendly” look at the “holy-fuck kind of things” Hampton Creek is doing to ensure “everyone is eating well.” He gestured to a slide deck on a flatscreen TV showing photographs of skinny black children next to one of an overweight white woman. They represented, he said, a handful of the 1.1 billion people who “go to bed hungry every night,” the 6.5 billion “just eating crappy food,” and the 2.1 billion from both groups “being fucked right now” by micronutrient deficiencies. “This is our food system today,” Tetrick said. “It’s a food system that is failing most people in the world. And these pillars of our food system today, we think, need to be rethought from the ground up.”
So far, the most prominent manifestation of Tetrick’s plan to rethink the pillars of our food system is a line of vegan mayonnaise, sold in plain, sriracha, truffle, chipotle, garlic, and “awesomesauce” flavors. Hampton Creek also sells vegan cookies and salad dressings, which are marketed, like the mayo, under the brand Just—a reference to righteousness, not simplicity—in venues ranging from Whole Foods to Walmart. And it sells a powdered egg substitute to General Mills for use in baked goods.
Tetrick insists that Hampton Creek is not a vegan-food producer. He has called it a “tech company that happens to be working with food” and has said, “The best analogue to what we’re doing is Amazon.” Using robotics, artificial intelligence, data science, and machine learning—the full monty of Silicon Valley’s trendiest technologies—Hampton Creek is, according to Tetrick, attempting to analyze the world’s 300,000-plus plant species to find sustainable, animal-free alternatives to ingredients in processed foods.
This pitch has captured the imagination of some of Silicon Valley’s most coveted venture capitalists. Since Hampton Creek’s founding, in 2011, the company has attracted $247 million from investors including Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang, and Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund. It was lauded by Gates in 2013 as a hopeful example of “the future of food” and named a World Economic Forum Technology Pioneer two years later. In 2014, Tetrick was cheered as one of Fortune’s 40 Under 40. He wooed a star-studded stable of advisers, including former Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, and A-list fans such as John Legend and the fashion designer Stella McCartney. Last fall, Hampton Creek was valued at $1.1 billion—surely the first time a vegan egg has hatched a unicorn.
Peter Thiel instructs start-up entrepreneurs to take inspiration from cults, advice that came to mind when Tetrick told me, after the job interview, that he screens for employees who “really believe” in his company’s “higher purpose,” because “I trust them more.” But buying into the mission has become a more complicated proposition, as Hampton Creek has recently been besieged by federal investigations, product withdrawals, and an exodus of top leadership. Silicon Valley favors entrepreneurs who position themselves as prophetic founders rather than mere executives, pursuing life-changing missions over mundane business plans. That risks rewarding story over substance, as the swift implosion of once-celebrated disrupters such as Theranos and Zenefits has shown. Fans of Hampton Creek say that Tetrick is “one of our world’s special people” who “will guide us into the abundant beyond.” Critics allege that he is leading a “cult of delusion.” Either way, he seems to be selling far more than just mayo.
The story of how Tetrick founded Hampton Creek, as he has recounted it on numerous conference stages, shows his instinct for a good narrative. As he tells “folks” in his slight southern drawl, he was raised in Birmingham, Alabama, by a mother who worked as a hairdresser and a father who was often unemployed, which meant his family was “on food stamps for most of our life.” (His mother remembers it as “maybe like two weeks or three weeks.” His father could not be reached for comment.) He had dreams of playing professional football (even changing the pronunciation of his surname from Tee-trick to Teh-trick because it “felt more manly,” he told me) and was a linebacker at West Virginia University before transferring to Cornell, where he earned a Fulbright to work in Nigeria. He has said he drew inspiration for Hampton Creek from his seven years in sub-Saharan Africa (three of which he passed, for the most part, in law school at the University of Michigan). Motivated by being raised on “a steady diet of shitty food” in Birmingham and seeing homeless children relying on “dirty-ass water” in Africa, Tetrick launched Hampton Creek to “open our eyes to the problems the world faces.”
Employees can repeat parts of Tetrick’s story from memory, like an origin myth, describing for visitors the Burger King chicken sandwiches and 7-Eleven nachos that Tetrick ate as a kid. (New hires participate in a workshop where they practice reciting their own personal journey toward embracing the company’s mission.)
In his public remarks, Tetrick usually skims over the years prior to launching Hampton Creek, when he, by his own admission, was “lost.” He graduated law school in 2008, joined a firm, then parted ways with it after less than a year—in part, he told me, over an op-ed he published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch in which he critiqued factory farming. (According to Tetrick, the law firm, McGuireWoods, counted the meat processor Smithfield Foods among its clients. The law firm declined to comment.) A vegetarian since college, he had been writing fiery editorials in his spare time calling out the “disgusting abuses” of the industrial food system.
Leaving law allowed Tetrick to throw himself into motivational speaking, which had already been competing with his day job. Two or three times a week, he visited high schools, colleges, and the occasional office to preach the virtues of social entrepreneurship and describe the big money to be earned by doing good. “Selflessness is profitable!” booms Tetrick to a class of graduating seniors in a 2009 video. “Because solving the world’s greatest needs is good for you! Solving the world’s greatest needs intersects with phenomenal career opportunities for you to engage you!”
According to his speaking agency at the time, Tetrick’s credentials included his prior work in President Bill Clinton’s office (a two-month gig); for the government of Liberia (four months); for the United Nations (four months); in Citigroup’s corporate-citizenship group (four months); at McGuireWoods (nine months); and at the helm of his crowdfunding start-up, 33needs (which petered out after less than 11 months). Prior to becoming the CEO of Hampton Creek, Tetrick had held no job for more than a year.
In 2011, Tetrick was largely itinerant and drawing on savings when his childhood friend Josh Balk intervened. Balk, then working on food policy for the Humane Society of the United States, had first gotten Tetrick thinking critically about industrial agriculture back in high school. It was under Balk’s influence that Tetrick became a vegetarian and, in his 20s, set a goal of donating $1 million to the Humane Society by his 33rd birthday. Balk now urged Tetrick to throw himself into a new venture that would draw on his insights about doing well by doing good, and suggested that they launch a start-up that would use plants as a substitute for eggs.
With Balk’s help, Tetrick enlisted David Anderson, the owner of a Los Angeles bistro, whose vegan recipes for foods like cheesecake and crème brûlée helped inform Hampton Creek’s early work. To raise money, they decided to approach Khosla Ventures, which seemed inclined to invest in companies with a social or environmental bent. In a pitch to Samir Kaul, a partner at Khosla, Tetrick spoke of a “proprietary plant-based product” that was “seven years in the making” and “close to perfection.”
Despite his current emphasis on Hampton Creek’s technical chops, Tetrick says he never expressly founded Hampton Creek as a tech start-up. “I didn’t go in and meet with Samir and say, ‘Hey, Samir, just so you know, I’m a technology company,’ ” he recalled. “I went in to him and I said, ‘Food’s fucked up, man. Here’s why. Here’s an example. Here’s what we’re thinking about doing.’ ”
The pitch netted the company $500,000—its first investment.
A video on Hampton Creek’s website shows a creamy white substance being smeared on a piece of toast. Then the camera cuts to scenes of an engineer running computer models and a robot zipping pipette trays around a laboratory. By turning plants into data, a voice-over explains, the company is working to combat both chronic disease and climate change.
This utopian message took some time to evolve. As the company was getting off the ground, Tetrick’s challenge to the industrial food system had a more subversive tone. “To say that we’ve launched a global war on animals just sells the word ‘war’ so pathetically short,” he wrote in 2011 for HuffPost. In a 2013 tedx Talk, shortly before the rollout of Just Mayo, he described the horrors of chicks being fed into “a plastic bag in which they’re suffocated” or “a macerator in which they’re ground up instantaneously.”
Tetrick’s love for animals was on display during a recent visit I made with him to a dog park—chaperoned, as I was at all times, by Hampton Creek’s head of communications. As Tetrick refueled with a four-espresso-shot Americano and a seitan bagel sandwich, we watched his golden-retriever puppy, Elie, run around on the grass. He’d purchased her from a breeder specializing in life extension in dogs, after the death of his beloved eight-year-old retriever, Jake, the previous spring. “Far and away the hardest thing that I’ve ever been through in my life was that,” Tetrick said. Elie, whom Tetrick named after the Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel because he considers it a “cool name,” flies internationally with Tetrick on long-weekend getaways, dines on dog food made of locally sourced organic vegetables, and accompanies him to work. (Tetrick’s free-roaming pets have been a point of contention for some of Hampton Creek’s food scientists: Jake ate researchers’ cookie prototypes on at least one occasion. Back at Hampton Creek headquarters, I watched Tetrick wipe Elie’s vomit off the floor adjacent to the research kitchen.)
When I brought up the tedx Talk, Tetrick told me he regretted it. “I was too much in my own head in thinking about what motivates me, as opposed to thinking from the perspective of everyone else who’s listening or could see that talk,” he said. “My primary motivator is alleviating animal suffering. For me. For me,” he said, in a conversation he initially wanted off the record, over concerns that it might be a “turnoff” to partners. He paused for a moment, and seemed conflicted about what he’d divulged: “I don’t know if I’ve ever said that to the full company.”
Though he said he still believes “every single word” of his past entreaties, Tetrick has largely sanitized his public remarks of references to animal abuse since finding that they fell flat with the broad group of retailers and shoppers he hopes to attract. He now hews closer to lines such as “We’ve made it really easy for good people to do the wrong things.” Though Tetrick has been a vegan for the past seven years, he discourages his marketing team from using the word vegan to describe Just products. The term, he says, evokes arrogance and wealth and suggests food that “tastes like crap.” Instead he promises customers a bright future where they can eat better, be healthy, and save the environment without spending more, sacrificing pleasure, or inconveniencing themselves. “A cookie can change the world,” Hampton Creek has asserted in its marketing materials.
The message is a rallying cry for a particular kind of revolution. Tetrick launched Hampton Creek in an era when investors were reaching beyond traditional tech companies, and businesses that might otherwise have been merely, say, specialty-food purveyors could leverage software—and grand mission statements tapping into Silicon Valley’s do-gooder ethos—to cast themselves as paradigm-breaking forces. Venture capitalists have poured money into start-ups aiming to disrupt everything from lingerie to luggage to lipstick, with less emphasis on the product than on the scope of the ambition and the promise of tech-enabled efficiencies. Hampton Creek offered idealism that could scale.
Once he’d secured funding from Khosla Ventures, Tetrick leaned into start-up culture. He ditched the couch he’d been crashing on in Los Angeles and rented a renovated garage in San Francisco. In an early press release, Hampton Creek touted Bill Gates—a limited partner in Khosla Ventures—as an investor. Tetrick recruited executives from Google, Netflix, Apple, and Amazon to join his staff, and highlighted their tech backgrounds to backers.
He also started promoting Hampton Creek’s biotech-inspired “technology platform”: labs that could automate the extraction and analysis of plant proteins, examining their molecular features and functional performance (including gelling, foaming, and emulsifying properties) and then applying proprietary machine-learning algorithms to identify the most-promising proteins for use in muffins, spreads, and other foods. “We are seeing things that no chef, no food scientist, has ever seen before,” the company declares on its website.
Hampton Creek earned glowing press, as Tetrick proclaimed that mayo was merely the beginning of a broader food revolution. David-and-Goliath moments—like a lawsuit brought by Unilever, the producer of Hellmann’s, against Hampton Creek arguing that only spreads containing eggs should be labeled “mayo,” or revelations that members of the American Egg Board and its affiliates had joked about hiring someone to “put a hit on” Tetrick—burnished Tetrick’s disrupter status. (Unilever later dropped the lawsuit.)
Food-industry celebrities joined investors in celebrating Tetrick’s approach. He “will win a Nobel Prize one day,” raved the chef and TV host Andrew Zimmern. He is an underdog (“a tough, gritty guy,” said Kaul) and “already is changing the world,” as the celebrity chef José Andrés marveled after a visit to Hampton Creek. According to friends, family, and associates, Tetrick is an “incredible salesman,” “one of the heroes of our generation,” and possibly a future president.
Lately, the glow around Tetrick and his company has been overtaken by an unforgiving spotlight. In 2015, a Business Insider exposé based on interviews with former employees alleged, among other claims, that Hampton Creek practiced shoddy science, mislabeled its ingredients, and illicitly altered employees’ contracts to slash their severance pay. (In a Medium post, Tetrick dismissed the story as “based on false, misguided reporting.” He did admit that employment agreements had been altered, though he added that he had since “fixed” the situation.) Last year, Bloomberg asserted that Hampton Creek operatives had bought mass quantities of Just Mayo in an attempt to artificially inflate its popularity—prompting investigations by the Department of Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission, which were eventually dropped. (Tetrick said that the buybacks were in part for quality control and accounted for less than 1 percent of sales.) Bloomberg also reported on claims by a Hampton Creek investor named Ali Partovi—an early backer of Facebook and Dropbox who lasted nine days as Tetrick’s chief strategy officer before leaving the company and severing all ties—that the company was exaggerating profit projections to deceive investors.
More recently, Target pulled Just products from its shelves after an undisclosed source raised food-safety concerns, including allegations of salmonella contamination. (Though an FDA review cleared Hampton Creek, Target—previously one of the brand’s best-performing outlets, according to Tetrick—announced that it was ending its relationship with the company.) In the span of a year, at least nine executive-level employees parted ways with Hampton Creek as rumors swirled that it was losing as much as $10 million a month. (Tetrick declined to comment on Hampton Creek’s finances but said that its turnover was typical of other high-growth companies.)
When I first arrived at Hampton Creek headquarters, in June, I expected to find Tetrick in crisis mode. Frankly, I was a little surprised that I’d been allowed to come: Four days before my visit, Tetrick had fired his chief technology officer, his vice president of R&D, and his vice president of business development over a purported coup attempt that seemed to suggest a lack of confidence in the CEO. (None responded to requests for comment.) By the time I arrived, the entire board save Tetrick had resigned.
Yet Tetrick was bubbling about his plans for the future. “I just got done with—and you’re welcome to see it—writing my 10-year vision,” he told me after saying goodbye to the IT-job candidate, as we joined some half a dozen newly hired Hampton Creekers for their inaugural product-tasting in the company’s research kitchen.
Amid gleaming mixers and convection ovens, the cheerful group of 20- and 30-somethings dipped crackers and crudités into ramekins of vegan salad dressing and mayonnaise arranged on a table along with spheres of cookie dough. While I could have easily polished off most of the cookie-dough samples myself, and the dressings were on par with other bottled ranch and Caesar offerings, Just Mayo—which has earned high marks from foodies—tasted to me like a slightly grassier, grainier version of Hellmann’s.
Tetrick was dissatisfied with the array of samples. “Where’s the butter? WHERE’S THE BUTTERRRRRR?” he asked the chef who’d organized the tasting. “You’ve got to get the butter!”
Hampton Creek’s plant-based butter was still a prototype, the chef reminded Tetrick. “The usual protocol for this thing is we show the products that are live on shelves, so that everybody understands what we—”
“What about the Scramble Patty?,” Tetrick interrupted. The patty, a breakfast-sandwich-ready product from their forthcoming egg-replacement line called Just Scramble, was dutifully delivered alongside the butter. Their vegetal aftertaste made clear to me why they had not yet been brought to market.
Hampton Creek has been promising the impending release of Just Scramble for years: In a presentation to potential investors cited by Bloomberg, Tetrick forecast that the mung-bean-based product line would bring in $5 million in sales in 2014—but three years later, it has yet to launch.
Tetrick told me that Hampton Creek will debut both a liquid version of Just Scramble and the Scramble Patty early next year, to be followed shortly by a new category of plant-based foods—possibly the butter, or ice cream. Or maybe yogurt or shortening. That’s in addition to the expansion of what Tetrick has branded Just OS (short for “operating system”), an arm of the company focused on licensing its ingredients and methods to food manufacturers. As Tetrick sees it, replacing eggs with his blend of vegan ingredients, which can be regularly tweaked and improved, makes it possible to continuously upgrade everything from cookies to condiments. “While a chicken egg will never change, our idea is that we can have a product where we push updates into the system, just like Apple updates its iOS operating system,” Tetrick has said.
Former Hampton Creek employees, including several involved in its research efforts—all of whom declined to be named for fear of retribution—suggested that the company focused on the appearance of innovation and disruption to the occasional detriment of tangible, long-term goals. They expressed frustration at being asked to reallocate resources from developing digital infrastructure to designing “cool looking” data-visualization tools that seemed like they would be primarily useful for impressing visitors; at having to leave their desks to don lab coats and “pretend to be doing something, because they had VIP investors coming through”; and at being instructed to set up taste tests for members of the public that took time away from product development. “We could’ve done really good science, and instead we were doing performances and circus acts,” one ex-employee told me.
The pursuit of Uber-size valuations has arguably resulted in some start-ups offering technological “solutions” more complicated than the problems they purport to solve. The founder of Juicero, for example, positioned himself as the Steve Jobs of juice when he launched a $699 microprocessor-enabled kitchen appliance that could press packets of chopped fruits and vegetables with enough force to “lift two Teslas”—but a Bloomberg reporter found that squeezing the packets with her hands worked just as well. (In early September, the company—which had attracted more than $100 million in venture-capital funding since its founding four years prior—announced that it was shutting down.)
To be sure, artificial intelligence is not crucial to making vegan mayonnaise: Tetrick has said his inspiration to replace eggs with Just Mayo’s Canadian-yellow-pea protein—a common ingredient in vegan packaged foods—came because he “brought in some biochemists and they ran tests, looking at the molecular weight of plant proteins, the solubility, all sorts of different properties.” Bob Goldberg, a former musician whose company, Follow Your Heart, has sold a vegan mayo called Vegenaise since 1977, told me that his inspiration to replace eggs with soy protein came in a dream. Follow Your Heart debuted its own plant-based egg substitute, VeganEgg, in 2016, after less than a year of development.
In response to ex-employees’ accounts of being derailed by visitor presentations, Tetrick said that communicating the company’s projects to potential investors and partners is essential to its work. But he rejected allegations that Hampton Creek was making fantastical promises or emphasizing image over substance, and suggested that detractors were seeking to subvert the company’s mission for their own gain. He told me that Partovi, his former chief strategy officer, who accused the company of misleading investors, was a dissatisfactory employee who had found the “chaotic” atmosphere of a start-up a “huge shock,” and had back-channel conversations about selling off the company. (Partovi declined to comment.) As for the three recently fired executives, Tetrick said their desired changes would have given more control to investors, whose incentive to go public or accept an acquisition offer might undermine Hampton Creek’s “higher purpose.” When I asked him about the board departures, which were made public after my visit, Tetrick told me that some members had been asked to step down; others “chose to remain members of the advisory board and help the company achieve its mission.”
“There’s one critical filter beyond all the other filters that’s most important,” he told me. “Will this particular decision—whatever that decision is—increase the chances that we will achieve the mission?”
It is difficult to resist being charmed by Tetrick. He is self-deprecating, joking that it took him six months to learn how to pronounce protein surface hydrophobicity. He exudes confidence, religiously maintains eye contact, and seems disarmingly open: He spoke with me for hours in the office long after his colleagues had gone home and repeatedly volunteered personal text messages for me to read. But his constant emphasis on where Hampton Creek is heading deflects attention from where it is now.
One afternoon during my visit, two Chinese visitors arrived at Hampton Creek for a meeting and joined Tetrick at his customary workstation at the front of the office. The pair had emailed the company’s customer-service department three days earlier, and Tetrick knew little about them besides their vague interest in “alternative proteins.” One of the men, Lewis Wang, now introduced himself as the founder of a venture-capital fund and his companion, who carried a Prada briefcase, as the chairman and CEO of one of China’s largest meat producers. The magnitude of the opportunity was not lost on Tetrick. He immediately summoned a colleague, whom he presented as “one of our lead scientists,” and instructed an employee with the nebulous title of “advocacy” to make sure the men had “the full experience.”
The visitors listened intently while Tetrick teased the company’s forthcoming patents and products, gradually building to the most cutting-edge undertaking of all: Project Jake (named after Tetrick’s deceased dog), Hampton Creek’s push into growing meat and fish in a lab. Tetrick explained how, rather than slaughtering a chicken, scientists could extract stem cells from a bird’s fallen feather and grow them into muscle cells.
Other start-ups in this field, including one co-founded by the creator of the first lab-grown burger prototype, have targeted 2020 as the earliest date for selling so-called cultured meat. Tetrick declared that his goal was to release lab-produced meat before the end of this year. “This is over our expectations,” Wang said. “It’s very exciting.”
Tetrick led the two Chinese men through a spacious room housing Hampton Creek’s team of designers and settled them in a windowless office with a large TV. Tetrick’s filmmaker, one of his longest-serving employees, cued up footage with a Kinfolk vibe: a farmer lovingly cradling a white chicken, a Hampton Creek employee in a field contemplating a single feather as wind rustled his curls. The last shot showed gloved hands snipping the base of a feather into a test tube.
“You are probably the only company that has a media studio here,” Wang remarked. “Other companies, I don’t think they have a communications studio.” But he also noted that the videos hadn’t shown how the stem cells would be transformed into meat: “Where is the growth?”
By way of response, Tetrick whisked the pair back to the design studio to behold another of his visions: a poster-size illustration of families admiring a hangar full of lab-grown hamburger patties—Tetrick’s farm of the future. Trusting in the logic that seeing is believing, he’d distributed framed versions to members of his staff and advised them to mount the drawing in their homes. “You’ve got to be able to see it,” he explained. “I want them to envision the future.”
The future of Hampton Creek that Tetrick would have the world envision is consistently, dazzlingly bright. Besides lab-grown meat and an increasing list of grocery-store staples, he promoted numerous milestones on the cusp of being realized: imminent deals with food manufacturers; patents set to receive approval; the removal of palm oil from Hampton Creek products; the launch of a long-overdue e‑commerce site; and the introduction of Power Porridge, a nutrient-rich cereal he said would be in Liberian schools this fall.
When I asked Tetrick why he was embarking on so many risky, expensive endeavors even as product deadlines slipped by, he acknowledged that a “better entrepreneur” might wait until the company was on more solid footing—but, he told me, “the difference between doing this [now versus] five years from now—or 10 years from now—is literally the difference of billions of animals suffering or not.”
Start-up CEOs frequently exaggerate their ambitions in an effort to attract more cash and justify large valuations: As Oracle’s billionaire co-founder, Larry Ellison, once quipped, “The entire history of the IT industry has been one of overpromising and underdelivering.” In the insular culture of Silicon Valley, where those who know the score often have a vested interest in keeping it hidden, it can be difficult to determine whether a company is poised for breakthrough or breakdown until the very moment of collapse.
Tetrick deposited his guests in the kitchen, where his chefs—“Michelin-star chefs,” Tetrick’s head of communications reminded me—had set a table with elegant earthenware pottery and proper silverware. “Here we have a steamed tamago, a little bit of smoked black sesame, pea tendril, and togarashi,” murmured one chef, setting down a Japanese-style omelet made with the liquid Just Scramble prototype. A vegan feast followed: Japanese chawanmushi custard with smoked kombu seaweed and sake-poached mushrooms, homemade brioche, butter and crackers, and ice cream. So did a live demonstration of the Just Scramble liquid being scrambled like eggs.
“We are very interested to invest if possible,” Wang announced after the meal. “I think Josh looks like a leader,” he told me later. Tetrick, in a rush to get to another meeting, left the two men to continue their tour of the headquarters: past researchers operating robotic arms, chefs laboring over scales, and other employees typing at laptops—a perfect vision of industry.