Has a tech entrepreneur come up with a product to replace our meals? ... Rhinehart, who is twenty-five, studied electrical engineering at Georgia Tech, and he began to consider food as an engineering problem. “You need amino acids and lipids, not milk itself,” he said. “You need carbohydrates, not bread.” Fruits and vegetables provide essential vitamins and minerals, but they’re “mostly water.” He began to think that food was an inefficient way of getting what he needed to survive. “It just seemed like a system that’s too complex and too expensive and too fragile,” he told me. ... What if he went straight to the raw chemical components? He took a break from experimenting with software and studied textbooks on nutritional biochemistry and the Web sites of the F.D.A., the U.S.D.A., and the Institute of Medicine. Eventually, Rhinehart compiled a list of thirty-five nutrients required for survival. Then, instead of heading to the grocery store, he ordered them off the Internet—mostly in powder or pill form—and poured everything into a blender, with some water. The result, a slurry of chemicals, looked like gooey lemonade. Then, he told me, “I started living on it.” ... One of Silicon Valley’s cultural exports in the past ten years has been the concept of “lifehacking”: devising tricks to streamline the obligations of daily life, thereby freeing yourself up for whatever you’d rather be doing. Rhinehart’s “future food” seemed a clever work-around. Lifehackers everywhere began to test it out, and then to make their own versions. Soon commenters on Reddit were sparring about the appropriate dose of calcium-magnesium powder. After three months, Rhinehart said, he realized that his mixture had the makings of a company: “It provided more value to my life than any app.” He and his roommates put aside their software ideas, and got into the synthetic-food business.
Hampton Creek never publicly admitted its numbers were wrong. It scrubbed its site of sustainability claims, and the Cookie Calculator vanished. Such quiet backpedaling might be forgivable at many young companies—overeager math isn’t unheard of in Silicon Valley. But at Hampton Creek, it fits a pattern of mistaken or exaggerated claims that may prove to be deliberately deceptive. ... the company deployed a national network of contractors to secretly buy back Just Mayo from grocery store shelves. ... Tetrick used supermarket sales figures much as he used the environmental claims—to raise venture capital ... His pitch: He would liberate billions of hens from the fetid misery of overstuffed cages—and in the process save water and grain and cut carbon pollution. Profane, charismatic, and built like the linebacker he once was, Tetrick became a tenacious evangelist for eliminating animal protein from the world’s diet. ... Tetrick contends that the mayo buyback program was primarily for quality-control purposes and cost just $77,000. ... A former accounting employee who worked with the company’s profit and loss statements says costs for the buybacks were included in several expense categories on the P&L, including one line item called “Inventory Consumed for Samples and Internal Testing.” As buybacks surged in 2014, Hampton Creek expensed about $1.4 million under this unusual category over five months, compared with $1.9 million of net sales in the period.
This is a guy who, seemingly overnight, raked in hundreds of millions of dollars in investment by promising to change the world through vegan mayonnaise, a product that had been on the market for years before his company, Hampton Creek Foods, came along to claim it. For Tetrick, fake mayo is not so much a lowly condiment as a gateway into a better tomorrow of clean eating, humane farms, and enlightened sustainability practices. ... This vision of a utopian techno-corporation, which Tetrick began building six years ago this month and which now counts 150 employees, has of late been the subject of considerable scrutiny, by both the media and the United States Securities and Exchange Commission. ... unnamed former Hampton Creek employees who charged that Tetrick and his company were guilty of numerous questionable practices, including exaggerating Hampton Creek’s scientific discoveries and the number of plant species in its database (which it currently tallies at 1,000); mislabeling ingredients; surreptitiously and unfavorably changing the terms of employee severance packages; insufficiently testing products; and, in the biggest burn of all, being a “food company masquerading as a tech company.” ... To those who question the company’s scientific bona fides, he offers the name of Jim Flatt, the former chief technology officer of the synthetic biology company Synthetic Genomics, who was hired in August 2015 as Hampton Creek’s chief technology officer. To those who question the company’s profitability, he says that it recently had its first $8 million month in sales. ... In Hampton Creek’s future he sees pasta, ice cream, yogurt, grains, and cheese; a global presence through e-commerce; shelf space in every single Walmart in the United States and Mexico; and a presence in food service around the world.