The Mad King Of Juice: Inside The Dysfunctional Origins Of Juicero

Juicero began in secret. The startup, a sort of Keurig for cold-pressed plant-water — which made headlines for the $US120 million ($161.8 million) in venture capital it secured from the likes of Google and Kleiner-Perkins between 2013 and 2015, and again when it announced its Wi-Fi-connected countertop appliance would cost a jaw-dropping $US700 ($943) on launch — intended to keep its business free from prying eyes, either because it feared corporate espionage, mockery or both. Was it the future of convenient health food, or an overfunded subscription service for bags of chopped up plants?

Founded in 2013 by Doug Evans, erstwhile CEO of New York juice company Organic Avenue, Juicero coupled a bizarre set of interests: A curdled, monopolised tech industry which has run dry on useful new ideas, and the medically-vague but burgeoning wellness industry’s promise to fill a physical and spiritual void, stripped away at least in part by tech itself. Two types of snake oil, expertly blended to suit their flavour profiles — and true to the spirit of both industries, accessible only to the wealthy.

Juicero has by any measure gotten the public comeuppance it richly deserved since launching at the end of last March. The company had its juice press torn down in April as “hopelessly expensive to manufacture and assemble”, and has since slashed its sale price nearly in half in January. This, right after a Bloomberg expose revealed the press itself was made redundant by the simple human hand, which can squeeze the produce bags well enough. But these darkly comic gaffes are a only keyhole view into the kingdom of dysfunction Juicero’s employees have been living in.

Gizmodo spoke to eight past and current Juicero employees and contractors, representing a wide swath of the company’s functions, all on condition of anonymity. Their stories reveal a business with deeply skewed priorities, where every warning sign along the path to its own undoing was cavalierly ignored at the behest of its autocratic founder. “[Evans] was actually genuinely surprised with [the backlash],” a team member who departed after the product launch last year told Gizmodo. “I don’t think that was the case for the other employees.”

The Mad King

In its infant stages, Juicero set its sights on changing the world. Small local farms and “ugly” produce — unfit for grocery stores but no less nutritious — would fuel a revolution to bring increasingly fat, malnourished Americans the fresh fruits and vegetables they’d forgone for junk food. And all in a convenient system that delivered liquid vitamins and minerals in delicious combinations. Evans loves to recount his own story of abandoning “hamburgers and fries” for “raw, organic fruits and vegetables, seeds, nuts and seaweed” after his parents’ untimely deaths.

Even the San Francisco startup’s most vocal detractors admit it — the juice tastes good. But over the years since its much-publicised round of funding in 2014, every other facet of that vision became compromised.

“On the surface [Juicero is] very much a vegan, healthy lifestyle kind of culture. That’s what they wanted to portray the culture as. That’s what they advertised the culture as,” a former operations employee said, audibly frustrated. “In reality, it was very much like a dictatorship.”

Nearly everyone Gizmodo spoke to painted a portrait of their former CEO as a micromanaging tyrant and a demeaning bully. “I had a real problem because I was persona non grata at Organic Avenue stores,” Evans says of his former juice venture in a minimally-viewed talk from BevNET on YouTube in which he discusses why he founded Juicero in the first place. The man needed a place to get fresh juice. After all, Evans is viewed as one of the original juicing evangelists, a militaristic adherent to a raw vegan diet for 18 years, with Organic Avenue’s punishing cleanses serving as boot camp for new recruits. But if his conduct then was anything like what’s been described more recently, it’s easy to see why he was unwelcome. “He either bullies you until you submit to what he wants to do, or he finds someone else who will go along with what it is he wants,” a former employee who was aggressively courted to join the company told Gizmodo. More charitably, another said, “He had his hands in almost every part of the business which is just impossible for anybody to do. It’s not good management to try to control everything.”

Illustrative of Evans’ deep misunderstanding of both leadership and of labour, he stated on “accomplished vegan ultra-endurance athlete” Rich Roll’s podcast just before Juicero’s launch that he treats “every Juicero team member as a venture capitalist who can make one bet — and that’s how they’re going to allocate their 40, 50, 60, 80 hours per week”.

Evans’ micromanaging style and refusal to defer to his own employees’ expertise caused the company to haemorrhage talent. One former employee watched Juicero churn through three top executives — a CFO, a COO and a VP of Operations — in under a year. In spite of tremendous funding and an impressive talent pool in its early days, disagreements, especially with Evans, led to a “legendary” volume of exits or firings. Evans bragged before launch of having 12 PhDs on staff. Several have since departed according to their Linkedin profiles, and a source claimed around a quarter of those PhDs remain today.

And what Evans wants, allegedly, can range from impractical to humiliating. Several employees related an anecdote in which flies had begun cropping up in the company’s San Francisco office. Evans — a vegan who at one point only allowed his employees to expense vegan meals on business trips — refused to implement a solution that would kill them. “I had to interview companies and ask if they had a catch-and-release program,” an employee recounted. “I went through links to help him understand that even that is not humane. It’s actually more stressful on the pests for you to catch them and relocate them.” Gizmodo could not confirm how or if the issue was resolved, and Juicero declined to make Evans available for an interview.

Looks Are Everything

It was Evans’ penchant for appearances, or possibly self-delusion, that led to Juicero’s counterproductive recycling program.

The “sustainability” page of the Juicero website claims that “each component is recyclable, reusable, or compostable”, and advises the environmentally conscious juicer that empty packs can be shipped, prepaid, to Terracycle — the same entity used by Keurig. For customers in Juicero’s native California where the company first launched, Terracycle is headquartered over 4350km away in Trenton, New Jersey. A Terracycle spokesperson confirmed to Gizmodo that consumers send their empty packs to Juicero where bulk shipments of empties are shipped to Trenton, then to a third-party facility for processing — four trips, including the initial purchase. Juicero declined to comment on the environmental impact of this extensive journey.

“The experts who put this together — because Doug told them that we had to have that for marketing purposes — made it very clear to me and others that, through their research, they’d determined 100 per cent that it would leave a much larger carbon footprint to ship these […] empty juice packs back East,” a former operations employee told Gizmodo. Another claimed this conclusion had been reached previously by the company’s internal food science team as well as two packaging engineering consultants. The partnership with Terracycle was pursued regardless in the interest of marketing the juice subscription service as more environmentally conscious than it was, these sources allege.

Juicero claimed that they believe these statements to be untrue and that no one on its leadership team “is aware of any consultants hired for this purpose”. The company further clarified that while partnering with Terracycle is an imperfect solution, it’s still trying to develop compostable juice packs.

Skewed Priorities

This same obsession with optics is what led to Juicero building a countertop appliance that initially cost $US700 ($943) (now a more attainable $US399 [$538]), replete with custom parts and unnecessarily complicated manufacturing elements. That and Evans’ ego and desire for celebrity. It bears mentioning the man has repeatedly likened himself to Steve Jobs, and his juicer to Tesla.

Rumours initially circulated regarding who helmed the juice press’s Apple-like sleekness and extraordinary cost. fuseproject, the studio of Yves Behar — a man who Forbes in 2014 called the most influential designer in the world — lists Juicero on its website as a “strategic partnership“, and multiple sources confirmed that a fuseproject employee was a frequent presence in Juicero’s office for many months.

“They were relying heavily on influencers — Rich Roll, Beyonce, Oprah Winfrey, Gwyneth Paltrow, on down the line,” a former employee told Gizmodo. Beyonce is rumoured to “have ties” to the company; Paltrow’s Goop brand glowingly recommended the product; Winfrey posted a lengthy video to her personal Instagram account as a cross promotion for Juicero and A Wrinkle in Time; Roll had Evans on a nearly two-hour episode of his podcast. Presumably, Behar was among the wealthy and powerful figures Evans wanted to be associated with. “He wanted to have the notoriety,” a former employee told Gizmodo of Evans’ decision to follow Behar rather than his own staff, “they had to accept it or pretty much be booted out.”

But the internal design team ran parallel to fuseproject, developing several versions which would have been smaller and cheaper. One source claims the original target cost of the press to consumers would be a more reasonable $US250 ($337). Upon seeing the fuseproject concept a former employee recalled that “you’ve got all these angles, you’ve got tooling, you’ve gotta make this plastic… We were horrified when we saw [it].” Multiple sources have alleged that the engineering team raised concerns about the designs from Behar’s studio and the massive cost to consumers if the company followed them. These issues were dismissed at the time, and in a non-response to Gizmodo, the company wrote that it “made choices based on what we believe best delivers what our consumers are looking for”.

To some extent the decision to veer towards an upscale market was a calculated one. On Roll’s podcast Evans said of his prior venture with juice company Organic Avenue, “we couldn’t have selected a worse location to open the first store… [the Lower East Side] seemed kind of hip because that’s where some of the vegan restaurants were, but it wasn’t where the affluent people were.” And the marketing decision to dispatch “brand ambassadors” on behalf of Juicero to LA locations of “luxury gym” chain Equinox to court potential customers and investors prior to launch reads as a CEO who knows his audience. But a $10 juice is a far cry from a $US700 ($943) single-purpose machine. According to a former employee, the company sold less than 100 units on launch day.

Juicero declined to comment on its sales.

Convenience and “a great experience” not achievable by hand-squeezing, as current CEO Jeff Dunn put it on Medium after a flurry of negative headlines, is ultimately what the company is selling. Ramtin Naimi, the 26-year-old phenom heading Abstract Ventures — which has investments in over two dozen companies including a series B investment in Juicero — went a step further, calling the Bloomberg story “lazy journalism”. In one sense it wasn’t much of a scoop: People within the company across multiple teams knew manual extraction was possible since approximately mid-2016. Naimi’s informal assessment — which he emailed to to Gizmodo broken down by flavour and millimetre yields, and which Gizmodo is as yet unable to confirm due to current shipping restrictions — suggests hand-squeezing nets significantly less juice, especially with tougher produce like carrots and kale.

It’s a perfectly intuitive conclusion that does little to redeem the company’s decision-making. Two sources involved in the press’s creation stood by the core mechanism (though not the overall cost) as elegant, effective at wringing every last drop out using hundreds of kilograms of force, and Juicero was careful to explain to Gizmodo that what it’s selling is convenience — something that can also be had at 11 Whole Foods locations in Southern California where the company has partnered to provide its product to be squeezed on-location.

Undoubtedly, a powerful juice press is more convenient than wringing produce by hand. But after doubt was cast on the press’s necessity by the Bloomberg piece, Dunn still offered consumers a full refund for 30 days. And of course the machine itself dropped from $US700 ($943) down to $US400 ($539) this January — although that huge reduction may well be difficult to sustain, assuming orders have increased since launch day. A source claimed to Gizmodo that Juicero’s business model was essentially to sell the press close to or at cost of manufacture and profit through sales of the juice packs, and that the original MSRP was a result of the costly manufacturing process involved. Juicero declined to comment on the matter specifically but contended that they expect their prices to drop further if sales volume increases:

Our aim from day one has been and continues to be lowering prices to increase accessibility and affordability. We’re less than a year in and already we’ve been able to bring down the cost of the Press, and expect further price reductions for both the Press and the Produce Packs over time as we scale.

We know that Juicero isn’t for everyone today, but as volumes increase, prices decline and our product line grows, our market expands exponentially. In the meantime, we’re confident that Juicero will continue appealing to consumers eager to incorporate more convenient, healthy habits into their lives.

Naimi told Gizmodo that “the investors that are currently in the business are very happy with the way things are going”, and that he’d personally invest more in Juicero if the company required further funding. He would not disclose how much his Series B contribution was.

Worst Practices

Expensive, shambolic and humiliated though it might be, Juicero’s problems as they’re understood in the press and by the public are not beyond repair. The countertop machine and companion juice packs (between $US5 [$7] and $US8 [$11] each) might very well be, as Naimi told Gizmodo, on their way towards becoming affordable. (“I can’t think of a single tech product that when it came out wasn’t expensive and targeted towards rich people,” was his chosen apologia.) Evans was even replaced by former Campbell exec Jeff Dunn in October of 2016, though the shifting leadership does not signal a major overhaul: Dunn was a board member and personal investor in the company, and formerly ran Bolthouse Farms — a business partner with Juicero which has its own successful juice brand. Evans remains involved as a chairman.

Though cloaked in mismanagement and hypocrisy, the core of Juicero has always been the produce itself. According to past employees with knowledge of the company’s supply chain, that too is not necessarily as it was advertised.

An early employee told Gizmodo that initially the company had hoped to source as locally as possible. Partially Juicero was limited in which farms it had access to when the food manufacturing arm of the company moved to LA. But, this employee claimed, the biggest hurdle was a pure numbers game: The scale that small farms alone could reliably deliver wouldn’t have been able to sustain the business.

Though the company lists what appear to be local, family-owned growers on the website, former employees claim the majority of produce is sourced from high volume operations like Dole. In terms of raw acreage, Dole represents the second-largest partner listed on Juicero’s site, behind Bolthouse Farms. “There were a list of farms on the website that they said were our partners and that we had these close relationships with,” an employee claimed. “Most of those farms we hadn’t even visited at the time that they had put them on their website. We didn’t have contracts with them.” Changes since the earliest available archive of the “farms” page (August 4 of last year) show just under half of the previously-listed partner farms no longer currently appear, and Dole is the sole grower hidden behind a “load more” button. Kern Ridge, one of the partners previously listed on the site, told Gizmodo in an email that their partnership with Juicero was brief and that they “moved their business to another supplier about six months ago”.

Several employees also stated that some of Juicero’s produce comes not directly from farms (regardless of size) but from distributors, wholesalers which undermine the company’s claims of expedience in farm-to-glass freshness. While its website boasted that Juicero would “source organic produce within days of harvest” as recently as February of this year, those assertions have been walked back significantly to instead lean into ideas like seasonality and ripeness. In statement to Gizmodo, Juicero claimed their website is currently accurate and that the company vets every farm it sources from “whether we purchase produce directly from a farm or through a distributor”. Caldwell Fresh Foods, a distributor a former employee claims Juicero worked with, did not respond to a request for comment.

And really, the foundation of the entire company is an almost mystical reverence for the nutritional powers contained in juice, and the necessity of pressing it at home — juicing tenets that, like Evans himself, are more about dogma than empiricism. In an interview with Recode, Evans is blunt in stating his beliefs about chi — a life force concept present in ancient Chinese medicine — and its apparent inability to remain within foods that have been exposed to heat, even the heat produced by other, inferior juicers. The flimsiness of these claims dawned on some employees during their tenure. “It just became harder and harder to make a case that this is really that healthy,” a former employee told Gizmodo.

Many of Juicero’s claims about cold-pressing delivering more nutrients — or vague benefits to your energy levels — lack the support of rigorous scientific study. Others border on laughable. “The process of shredding fruits and vegetables with blades… can cause heavy casualties to good bacteria, enzymes and vitamins,” a company blog post cautions without acknowledging that a Juicero pouch’s contents are themselves chopped “into Pack-friendly pieces”. That same post cites two articles by Dr Joseph Mercola, a man who has been disciplined by the FDA for making spurious or illegal health claims.

In the most charitable interpretation of these employees’ stories, Juicero was a naive but well-intentioned venture that bit off more than it could chew; in the least, it’s about an overconfident egotist who was handsomely rewarded by a bloated industry bent on profit and willing to leap at any opportunity to beat back the inconvenience of mortality (and Juicero’s financiers might have seen a bit of themselves in Evans’ own well-publicised fear of death, the reason he first became a raw vegan). “You feel the sting of all these attacks and yet you understand — they’re right,” a former employee said regarding the wave of bad press since the company’s launch. “We had the money. We had the people. We had the resources to do it the right way,” a former employee told Gizmodo, still disappointed by the way the promise and challenge of the company’s mission had been compromised. And perhaps in Evans’ mind, everything that’s played out with Juicero so far has been the right way, all according to his unyielding and impenetrable vision.

Among my many hours of conversations with the people who made Juicero the spectacle — for better or worse — that it is today, the interpretation that feels the closest to truth is this: “Until you live in Silicon Valley, you don’t realise how many dumb rich people there are.”

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