“Denies that the company had proprietary recipes” in response to lawsuit
SAN FRANCISCO, California––Vegan cheesemaker Miyoko Schinner, in her newly filed response to the Miyoko’s Creamery lawsuit against her for allegedly stealing trade secrets, “denies that the Company has any true ‘trade secrets,” and “denies that the company had ‘proprietary recipes.’”
Fired in June 2022 by venture capitalists who hold four of the seven seats on the Miyoko’s Creamery board of directors, Schinner through lawyers Lisa Bloom and Alan Goldstein on March 16, 2023 filed both her response to the Miyoko’s Creamery complaint and her anticipated countersuit against the corporate holding company Miyoko’s PBC in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.
Miyoko’s recipes shared in videos & published in book
Schinner contends, in effect, that she built Miyoko’s Creamery, now with reported sales of $260 million a year, by simply making on a commercial scale the same products she taught others to make for 40 years.
“Over the past four decades,” the countersuit outlines, “Miyoko has written vegan cookbooks, taught cooking classes, opened and sold a vegan restaurant (called Now & Zen) and launched a vegan natural foods company and vegan brands, including a competitor to Tofurky. In 2012, she published Artisan Vegan Cheese, the seminal cookbook that put vegan cheesemaking on the map.”
Denies taking anything that was not hers
The remainder of Schinner’s response to the Miyoko’s Creamery complaint includes the admission that after she was ousted from the company she built, using her own name, “she signaled her intent to start her own company, but did not indicate what type of company she intended to start, much less that it was a competing business. Defendant denies that she intended to compete with Plaintiff.”
Schinner also “admits that she copied documents that she was entitled to access as a member” of the Miyoko’s Creamery board, but denies either copying or taking anything proprietary to Miyoko’s Creamery.
Schinner further “admits to deleting some of those files,” meaning the documents she copied, “after she was informed (incorrectly) that she did not have a right to retain those documents,” but “denies that she ‘has not accounted for the whereabouts of all the Company property and information[.]’”
Took her refrigerator & went home
The Miyoko’s Creamery complaint against Schinner was illustrated with security camera photos showing her and a woman identified in the complaint as “a former employee, Jennifer Kirkham,” allegedly “removing property from the [Miyoko’s Creamery] warehouse, removing cheese cultures and unreleased product prototypes from the company’s industrial refrigerator—all illegally and without the company’s authorization.”
The video surveillance images show Schinner and the second person wheeling a blue steel handcart carrying a small cardboard box, an open-topped white plastic bucket, and two yellow plastic buckets with closed tops, resembling five-gallon containers of cat litter.
Kirkham was not named as a co-defendant in the case filed against Schinner.
In Schinner’s response, Schinner “admits to removing Company property, but only property carrying no value to the Company,” and “admits to transferring a refrigerator, personally owned by Defendant, to a moving truck.”
26-point “affirmative defense”
Beyond that, Schinner “denies that there were “many proprietary culture configurations used to create the company’s plant-based products,” further “denies that any ‘culture configurations took years and substantial resources to develop,’” and finally denies taking “many proprietary company recipes” or “highly proprietary and confidential documents.”
Schinner’s response to the Miyoko’s Creamery complaint against her concludes with a 26-point “affirmative defense,” asserting in part that, “The Complaint as a whole, and each purported cause of action alleged therein, fails to state facts sufficient to constitute any cause of action against Defendant upon which relief may be granted.
Did Miyoko cost Miyoko’s Creamery money?
Further, Schinner’s response alleges, “Plaintiff’s Complaint, and each purported cause of action and/or form of recovery contained therein, is barred to the extent that Plaintiff lacks standing to assert any of the causes of action and/or form of recovery contained in the Complaint because Plaintiff has not suffered any injury-in-fact or for which Plaintiff does not have a private right of action. Moreover, Plaintiff lacks standing because its board did not vote to initiate this lawsuit.”
In other words, Schinner contends that the Miyoko’s Creamery board majority cannot demonstrate that anything she has done has cost them money, apart from the money they have spent trying to rationalize their actions in the public eye and/or to try to silence Schinner herself through their lawsuit.
Swiss cheese & alleged chauvinist bacon
Schinner’s countersuit specifically targets Miyoko’s Creamery chief operating officer René Weber.
“I am a Swiss Federal Master Cheese Maker,” Weber introduced himself on LinkedIn, “with experience directing the operations and management of leading domestic and international cheese and dairy companies around the world.
“I am adept at managing complex operations,” Weber claims, “and possess technical, managerial and business expertise. I am a strategic thinker and an expert team leader with strong interpersonal and communication skills. I am passionate about quality and driving solid business growth.”
The LinkedIn entry lists experience with the Tillamook County Creamery Association, Saputo Inc., Emmi Roth U.S.A., White Clover Dairy Inc., and World Bank, following eleven years of study in Switzerland.
No visible vegan experience
What the LinkedIn entry does not list is any experience prior to joining Miyoko’s Creamery in vegan food production and marketing. Nor does the LinkedIn entry mention any specific interest in promoting veganism, the raison d’etre in Franco-Swiss lingo why Miyoko Schinner founded Miyoko’s Creamery.
According to Schinner’s countersuit, “In 2021, Miyoko’s PBC [the holding company for Miyoko’s Creamery] hired René Weber, an executive who singled out and openly denigrated women, especially Miyoko, making it impossible for her to continue to effectively do her job.
“On behalf of herself and other women at Miyoko’s PBC, Miyoko complained to Human Resources. Miyoko’s PBC swiftly retaliated against Miyoko by demoting her and then terminating her.”
“Campaign of mistreating women”
Details Schinner’s countersuit, “In January of 2021, Miyoko’s PBC hired Rene Weber to be vice president of operations. Weber immediately began a campaign of mistreating women who worked at Miyoko’s PBC, including Miyoko, by excluding them from meetings, denying them information they needed, berating them publicly and privately, and otherwise making it difficult to impossible to do their jobs.
“Weber openly denigrated women, their expertise, and their contributions at Miyoko’s PBC,” alleges Schinner’s countersuit, “calling some ‘stupid’ and ‘terrible.’ He did not use these condescending terms with men. On several occasions, he mansplained to Miyoko that she did not understand her own products or Miyoko’s PBC, the company she founded. In a markedly gendered tone, he described her ideas and ambition as unrealistic, driven by emotion and whim.”
Schinner, at that time still chief executive officer of Miyoko’s Creamery, “often complained to James Joaquin,” founder of the Obvious Ventures venture capital firm and a Miyoko’s PBC board member, “and John Kenney,” also a board member, cofounder of Cult Capital, “about Weber’s condescending behavior to her which she believed was due to her gender,” the countersuit says.
“In December 2021,” Schinner’s countersuit continues, “John Zabrodsky, an operations consultant hired by Miyoko’s PBC at the behest of PowerPlant Partners (Miyoko’s PBC’s lead investor), presented a report on Miyoko’s PBC operations in a meeting wherein he addressed Miyoko in a very condescending manner. He would not have addressed her in this manner had Miyoko not been a woman. Miyoko complained about Zabrodsky’s gendered behavior to an executive at PowerPlant Partners.
“In early 2022,” Schinner’s countersuit adds, “after Miyoko made multiple complaints about Mr. Weber’s mistreatment of women, Miyoko’s PBC directed her to promote Weber to the position of chief operating officer due to its concerns that he was a ‘flight risk,’” apparently meaning that Weber, whose LinkedIn history indicates frequent changes of employment, might jump to a rival company.
A particularly telling incident, Schinner’s countersuit indicates, came during a January 2022 board meeting, at which “Miyoko reported Zabrodsky’s gendered behavior to Daniel Gluck,” a managing partner of PowerPlant Partners, and to Kenney, Joaquin and Weber.
Says Schinner’s countersuit, Gluck “quickly rebuffed her by saying, ‘I don’t know about any misogyny, but we need to discuss [Zabrodsky’s operations report.] What else does it say?”
Schinner’s countersuit recounts that in February 2022 “Miyoko complained to Lisa Feria,” a Miyoko’s PBC board member and chief executive at Stray Dog Capital, “about gendered treatment against her by members of the board.”
Feria, the countersuit says, “confided in Miyoko about feeling ineffective and ignored by the male board members in meetings.”
Schinner’s countersuit continues that “In late May of 2022, Miyoko complained to Miyoko’s PBC’s then director of human resources about gendered treatment from Jorge Couce, a senior director at Miyoko’s PBC. Upon information and belief, human resources never investigated Miyoko’s gender discrimination complaint.”
Schinner was fired as Miyoko’s Creamery chief executive officer about two weeks later, on June 9, 2022, but remained as board chair.
Jon Blair, formerly Miyoko’s PBC chief financial officer, was made interim president.
“Act of retaliation”
Schinner continued to pursue allegations of gender discrimination through various internal channels, her countersuit details, on behalf of herself and eight other women, whom the countersuit does not name, but who may be expected to appear as witnesses if the case ever goes to trial.
Concludes Schinner’s countersuit, “Miyoko PBC’s termination of Miyoko’s employment was an act of retaliation for her complaints of discrimination against Weber and Zabrodsky.
“Indeed, Joaquin earlier characterized Miyoko’s attempts to hold Weber accountable for his misconduct as ‘irrational.’ It bothered Miyoko’s PBC executives that Miyoko stood up for her rights and the rights of other women in the company, demanding respectful treatment and refusing to conform to the stereotype of a docile, complacent, obedient Asian-American woman.”
Right to name & image
A parallel issue in Schinner’s countersuit is that Miyoko’s PBC allegedly “never obtained the right to use Miyoko’s name, image and likeness after her termination,” even after Schinner on August 18, 2022 demanded through legal counsel that the company “cease and desist its use and exploitation of her publicity rights.”
Notes Schinner’s countersuit, “To this day, Miyoko’s PBC continues to prominently display Miyoko’s name and likeness on its website,” and “has flatly ignored her cease and desist letters demanding the removal of her likeness from its websites.”