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Hampton Creek Founder Talks Squelched Investigation, Company Valuation and New Design

By Published on .

Hampton Creek new packaging
Hampton Creek new packaging Credit: Hampton Creek
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Hampton Creek's packaging makeover may help the vegan products maker distance itself from controversial headlines and a pinch of government scrutiny.

In August, a Bloomberg story suggested the Just Mayo maker hired contractors who bought lots of the product off store shelves, dragging the company into the spotlight. A month later, Bloomberg Businessweek ran an in-depth expose. Those pieces were not the first to raise questions about Hampton Creek or its founder and CEO, Josh Tetrick. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and Justice Department even looked into possible securities violations and criminal fraud, inquiries Tetrick announced in March had been dropped. He's moving on.

"It's hard to go through stuff in general without learning something," Tetrick said when asked about those issues. "Things just worked themselves out."

Tetrick quickly pivoted the conversation to brighter topics. The company, founded in 2011, is now labeled a unicorn, Silicon Valley slang for a startup valued at more than $1 billion, though Tetrick said he has no plans to sell. "Even though the private markets value us at 1.1 [billion dollars] right now, we're not in this to get acquired."

Next up, a long-discussed eggless Just Scramble is set to debut in the next six to eight months, first with patties in foodservice. Tetrick wants to push into one more category each year and is looking at areas such as butter, ice cream, and pasta.

Sales have at least doubled every year and so far the company is on track to do so again in 2017, Tetrick said. The business is roughly half done at retail, and half through foodservice, where Compass Group gets the products into university dining halls, corporate cafeterias, and the like.

Despite its high valuation, Hampton Creek retail sales were a relatively modest $20.1 million, up 52.9%, across a wide range of channels in the 52 weeks ended May 14, according to IRI, a Chicago-based market research firm. Retail sales of Just Mayo rose 18.1% to nearly $14.4 million during that period. The biggest gainer was shelf-stable dressing, which jumped 774.3% to $2.14 million, IRI data show.

The updated look, with accents such as a swipe of mayo on a green background for a garlic variety, covers the San Francisco-based company's full line, including cookies and cookie dough. It comes after Hampton Creek agreed to update its Just Mayo packaging in December 2015 to make it clear it is not mayonnaise, which contains eggs, yet keep the product name which it argues gives it a broader potential audience beyond vegans. Just Mayo is now marked as an egg-free spread and dressing, while labels for competitors including Kraft and Hellmann's highlight that those products are "real mayonnaise.

But when Tetrick was in a store and asked a shopper which mayo was good, she pointed to Kraft. As for Just Mayo? "She kind of sneered at it in a little way and she said, 'Nah, that's a private label version, you don't want that,'" Tetrick recalled. "It was kind of the first moment when I was thinking 'Maybe I don't know what the hell I'm doing here,'" he said. "The design needs to have empathy and connect everywhere we are."

Old and new packaging
Old and new packaging Credit: Hampton Creek

The craft paper look is history. Along with carrying a private label stigma to some potential purchasers, all that brown sometimes made it tough for store workers to shelve mayo or dressing in the right spots.

Work on the redesign, which plays on the word "just" both for ingredient lists and as it relates to fairness and equity, began about a year ago. Hampton Creek went through "probably 3,000 total iterations" across all of its products to find what it felt had a "clarity and purity" to convey each item, said Chief Design Officer Sean Wolcott. Its website went from www.hamptoncreek.com to www.eatjust.com, though Hampton Creek remains the corporate name. The corporate storytelling plays out there and on Medium.

All the design work and other projects were handled internally, executives said.

"I'm sure there's an effective way to work with external folks, I haven't figured it out yet. So we do everything in-house," Tetrick said.

That includes its sometimes outspoken marketing. After all, Tetrick wants people to reach out to him so much that he includes a phone number -- (415) 404-2372 -- in full-page print ads in the New York Times and elsewhere. An open letter to Donald Trump last summer read in part: "Your campaign doesn't just seem wrong. It feels un-American." It caught the attention of some voters, even landing Tetrick on CNN.

"We're always trying to find kind of an unexpected way to communicate something with shocking clarity," Wolcott said, noting that in this case, "ultimately it was unsuccessful."