Duke Foods (copy)

Greenville-based Duke Foods, which makes sandwich spreads, is accusing a former sales executive of stealing recipes and trade secrets. The sales executive says he was fired because Duke Foods didn't want to pay his commission. Provided

A former sales executive accused in a lawsuit of stealing secret sandwich spread recipes from Duke Foods says he's the innocent victim of a vindictive employer trying to get out of paying a six-figure commission check.

Wyatt Howard, the former vice president of sales for the Greenville-based company, said in court documents this week that he was fired one day before the manufacturer was to have paid him commissions for $24 million worth of new business he generated for the company.

At the rate stipulated in Howard's employment agreement, those commissions would have totaled $480,000.

After he was fired, Howard said he started demanding his commissions.

"Duke Foods retaliated with unfounded allegations that he misappropriated Duke Foods' trade secrets," court documents state.

Duke Foods — the 100-year-old creation of Duke’s Mayonnaise maven Eugenia Duke — said in a lawsuit this month that Howard downloaded recipes, formulas and pricing information to his personal laptop computer when he was fired.

The company is seeking a restraining order against Howard and his new employer, competitor Knott's Fine Foods, to keep them from profiting on the purportedly purloined paperwork.

Knott's owner Josh Knott said in a court document that no one from his company has received any of Duke Foods' recipes "other than what was publicly available through legal and proper means."

Knotts, which is based in Paris, Tenn., has agreed not to use any proprietary recipes or sales information from Howard should it run across any.

Howard, in his court filing, said the sandwich spreads lawsuit is a smear job and is really all about money.

He said Duke Foods tried to get him to sign paperwork a few weeks before he was fired that would have eliminated his commissions on new business he generated his first year with the company. That included three contracts with an unnamed retailer that hired Duke Foods to make private-label sandwich spreads.

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Howard said Duke Foods began receiving payments from the retailer shortly before he was terminated. He wants Duke Foods to post a bond to cover his unpaid commissions if the court case moves forward and he eventually wins.

Howard now works as sales manager for Knott's in Tampa, Fla.

The recipes in question don't include the well-guarded mix of ingredients for Eugenia Duke's popular mayonnaise — a staple in Southern kitchens. Duke sold the mayonnaise side of the business to food giant C.F. Sauer Co. in 1929. Sauer was recently acquired by a Charlotte-based private equity firm.

The sandwich spreads, which Duke created in her Greenville kitchen beginning in 1917, are owned by the separate Duke Foods group, a family business started by the mayonnaise creator's bookkeeper.

Knott's also has a long family history, with founders Cedric and Mildred Knotts using their personal recipes for pimiento cheese, chicken salad and other spreads to make sandwiches that were delivered to local businesses more than 70 years ago. 

Duke Foods, which markets its spreads under its namesake brand and for private-label companies, has an 80,000-square-foot manufacturing plant in Easley and is building a second plant in Monroe, N.C.

Reach David Wren at 843-937-5550 or on Twitter at @David_Wren_