Hilary’s Eat Well is growing its plant-based food line, company leaders said.
The move to diversify the company’s offerings — as well as to more efficiently produce larger quantities of its free-from (dairy- and gluten-free) products — comes as the Lawrence-based operation moves its storage to an off-site facility, freeing up manufacturing space, said Lydia Butler, president and chief financial officer.
“Often, if you go into a new line of product, you’ll need a new piece of equipment in order to either manufacture the product or to package the product,” Butler said. “And we just simply have not had the space in our building — until this expansion — to house too many new pieces of equipment.”
The new space and additional equipment should be fully online by summer, Butler said.
Hilary’s posted a nearly $4 million funding round in August, with growth capital led by VG Growth Partners. The company also is a recipient of funding from the Mid-America Angels investment group, managed by the Enterprise Center of Johnson County.
Having already grown from a staff of fewer than 10 to now more than 50 employees, Butler said, Hilary’s anticipates hiring 10 to 15 more workers “just to support the growth and demand of our products.”
“We’re past the startup phase because we’re pretty well-known and well-established in the natural organic food space, but we’re still a small business and in a small facility,” Butler said. “We’ve been doing a whole lot with a little, so I think being able to bring in some new investors last year and then to be able to expand our manufacturing and storage capabilities is helping us overcome some of the constraints we’ve had up to that point.”
Hilary’s offers a variety of free-from products, but its veggie burger options continue to be the most popular, Butler said.
The burger products have their roots in Local Burger, a Lawrence restaurant Hilary’s founder Hilary Brown launched in 2005.
“That a veggie burger in Kansas could be a No. 2 best-seller [at Local Burger] is mind blowing,” Brown said. The restaurant, which closed later in 2005, also sold elk, buffalo, beef, pork and turkey, she said.
Local Burger’s veggie patty was so popular, however, that customers quickly began requesting the burgers to store in their home freezers, Butler said. The product eventually was re-marketed under the Hillary’s Eat Well brand. Whole Foods put them in all of its stores nationwide in early 2012, she said.
“That was really a huge leap forward for the company,” she said.
Hilary’s has since launched a variety of new free-form products, from veggie bites and salad dressings to its original Millet Medleys and vegetarian breakfast sausage, she added.
“We have also gotten our products placed in virtually every national food store,” Butler said. “Our growth trajectory has been kind of a combination of adding new products and adding to the number of grocery store chains in which we’re distributed.”
Hilary’s products also are available online. In the veggie burger category alone, the company offers such variations as Adzuki Bean, Hemp and Greens, Curry, Spicy Thai and Kimchi.
“We have a lot of really great ideas for products, and [the expansion] is really just also focusing on the products that we have right now and getting those into more people’s hands,” said Becky Harpstrite, Hilary’s vice president of marketing.
Having worked for Hilary’s since 2012, Harpstrite is proud the company continues to manufacture its products in-house, compared with similar-sized companies that work with co-manufacturers, she said.
“I think at least once a year there’s a moment where I’m like, ‘Wow, this is still an amazing company, and we’re creating some awesome products,’” Harpstrite said. “We see people who our products have changed their lives or have made their lives easier. They come up to us and say, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m so happy that you exist.’ Those moments happen so frequently, especially at trade shows and events and even on Facebook and Instagram where we get that feedback from the people that we’re actually doing this for.”
Hilary’s manufactures in-house to maintain control over allergens in its facility, she added.
“It was a challenge for us to find a facility that we really trusted to keep all of those good common-food allergens out of our products,” Harpstrite said, noting Hilary’s continues to focus on the triple bottom line: people, planet and profit. “As a certified B corporation, we really want to invest in the people in our company. [And] we’re doing some really sustainable initiatives to help the planet moving forward.
“So, really, being able to expand even more is so exciting to me because that just means that we are helping more and more people thrive, not just our customers with our products, but the people who are making those products as well.”