A Taste of Freedom

Local restaurateur’s brand, Hilary’s Eat Well, sells allergen-free veggie burgers nationwide

The topic of food allergies generally brings to mind nut-free school zones, where cafeteria ladies swap PB&J with sandwiches smeared with sunflower seed butter. But elementary-aged kids aren’t the only group affected. According to a 2013 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, food allergies increased by 50 percent between 1997 and 2011 and now affect more than 9 million adults.

Lawrence resident Hilary Brown discovered in 2003 that she was one of the millions of American adults who now have to pore over food ingredients labels and restaurant menus with a fine-tooth comb. “I found out that I basically was allergic to the American diet, and that led me to do a tremendous amount of research on food and health,” she says.

Brown completely overhauled her diet, and along the way, stumbled upon a tremendous business opportunity. In 2010, she launched Hilary’s Eat Well, a food manufacturing company that produces a line of all-natural veggie burgers. Now just three years later, Brown’s company is the poster child for grocery retail success. Her products are sold in more than 2,000 stores nationwide, including every location of Whole Foods Market.

“I love research, and I studied the market,” Brown explains. “And looking at veggie burgers, there hadn’t been a lot of innovation in a long time. That’s what you really want is innovation, a good price point, and I think we successfully have done those two things.”

By innovation, Brown means “a lot of ingredients customers have probably never heard of.” Her burgers come in exotic flavors like “Adzuki Bean” and “Hemp & Greens” and are made from millet and arrowroot and psyllium husk—foods that certainly don’t show up in the standard veggie patty but are just as healthy for the environment as they are for the folks eating them.

Building on her own experience with food allergies, Brown has committed herself to creating products that are free of the most common allergens, including egg, dairy, gluten, nuts, soy and corn. It’s a personal decision, sure, but the potential financial impact is tremendous. According to Brown’s research, there will be a $28 billion market for allergen-free foods by 2018.

“Everybody knows about gluten free now,” says Brown, “but most of the gluten free stuff out there has another allergen in it. Everything you see coming out of this company is going to be free of [all of those foods]. Always.”

Brown’s entrepreneurial goals weren’t always tied to frozen vegetable patties. In 2005, she opened Local Burger in Lawrence (after attending New York’s Natural Gourmet Institute) with the intent to serve healthy, locally sourced food her patrons could trust. Burgers were obviously the restaurant’s main draw, and Brown and company served up no less than eight different protein options. Surprisingly, though, the veggie burgers were her second-most popular offering (after beef). “I was stunned because veggie burgers usually aren’t a hot seller,” she says.

In addition to serving as the birthplace and development incubator for Brown’s veggie burgers, Local Burger was an impromptu test kitchen for her other allergy-friendly fare, some of which is scheduled to hit supermarket shelves soon. She has a new line of sauces and dressings on tap, and a partnership with fellow Kansan Hilary Kass of Ancient Grains Bakery will yield a new allergen-free bread product made with sprouted grains.

Due to the breakneck growth speed of Hilary’s Eat Well, Local Burger is temporarily closed. Brown says she personally misses the restaurant (as does her five year old), but she also recognizes the need to focus her energy and resources on building her brand and serving a growing number of consumers with special diets.

“The internet has turned people into ingredient panel readers instead of nutritional panel readers,” says Brown. “Nutritional panels have not really delivered what they said they were going to deliver. It says, ‘fat free’—you still get fatter. It says, ‘sugar free’—you still struggle with your diabetes. I feel like my job is to stay as aware of trends as possible [because] that truth is coming out about what’s healthy for our ecosystem and [our bodies].”

 Story by Andrea Williams