How a Local Burger Favorite Became a Global Brand

These allergen-free vegetarian patties are a hit around the world.
(Photos: Courtesy Hilary's Eat Well; Illustration: Jessica De Jesus)
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Jan 13, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Bekah Wright is a Los Angeles–based journalist who specializes in travel, entertainment, and lifestyle.

Many entrepreneurs with a strong local following dream of building a nationally or even internationally recognized company. But the widespread distribution and sale of any product can be hard no matter what you are selling. For Kansas restaurateur Hilary Brown, selling and shipping her perishable, allergen-free burgers around the world was a trial by fire.

For years, the most popular item on the menu of Brown’s restaurant, Local Burger, was a burger named after her: the Hilary’s Eat Well vegetarian burger. Brown was constantly besieged by take-home requests for the all-natural burgers. Brown began researching the potential of selling the burgers via local grocery stores and universities in other cities. Strong interest was sparked, and with family and friends jumping in as investors in 2010, things began moving swiftly for Hilary’s Eat Well. A sales team was put in place, and the burgers were packaged for the retail market.

“Having no experience in the natural foods industry market, everything was very grassroots,” says Becky Harpstrite, one of the original Hilary’s Eat Well team members. “We were learning everything at a rapid pace, from preparing sales presentations and marketing plans to creating social media accounts, taking food photos, and shipping to distributors.” A year later, the brand established national distribution, and its meteoric rise continued into 2012 with a lucrative distribution deal with Whole Foods Markets.

As demand for the burgers continued to soar, the company’s nascent supply chain proved to be a challenge. “We’d been making the product in Local Burger’s kitchen,” Harpstrite says. “Suddenly, we needed to do production on a very large scale.” Indeed, Hilary’s was no longer just selling veggie burgers but had a growing list of other products. It procured a small production facility in 2011 but soon outgrew that and moved into a larger space. “Right now, we have freezers bigger than that facility,” Harpstrite says.

Hilary’s Eat Well burger. (Photo: Courtesy Hilary's Eat Well)

With no gluten, dairy, soy, corn, nuts, yeast, or eggs in Hilary’s Eat Well allergen-free products, potential customers often would ask, “Do they actually taste good?” In response, the company would send sample products to food bloggers, newspapers, and magazines, which meant getting the perishable food all across the country on time and unspoiled. To do that cost-effectively, it turned to UPS. “Initially, we were overnighting with dry ice,” Harpstrite says. “This was incredibly costly, so our UPS rep helped us develop a more efficient ground delivery program.” Hilary’s Eat Well also conducted in-house testing with the help of UPS. They settled on a combination of material made from recycled denim, complimentary packaging, and ice packs, to keep the product frozen for several days.

(Photo: Courtesy Hilary's Eat Well)

In addition to supply chain challenges that came with growth, the company has worked to maintain its commitment to operating sustainably. For example, it teamed with Lotus Foods to make its rice-based burger because of Lotus Foods’ sustainable rice production process. “Lotus works with More Crop per Drop, a way of cultivating rice which uses 50 percent less water and up to 90 percent less feed than most other producers,” says Harpstrite. “We wanted to be a part of that.”

Since the company launched five years ago, victories have been constant. Hilary’s Eat Well is now sold globally, from Canada to Australia to Peru and beyond. Huge validation came last March when SPINS, the leading provider of retail consumer analytics for the natural, organic, and specialty products industry, named Hilary’s Eat Well the top-selling veggie burger in the natural market.

All of this success is a testament to Brown’s belief that if you trust in the quality of what you make, do whatever it takes to get people to try it. And have faith that the love for what you’re creating will shine through to your customers.